Jeannie Houchins

How we receive news today is much different from a decade ago. Traditional media focused on the medium (broadcast vs print) and the type of news (hard news vs soft news). And, most importantly, influential media set the local agenda. Reporters in the traditional space asked the five W’s (who, what, when, where, and why), and giant news anchors like The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC World News, and National Public Radio dominated the media landscape.

Now, the electronic age has tremendously changed how and when we get our information. Newspapers are on the decline, while online readership has increased. According to Nielsen Online, nearly 70 million people a month access their news online via an online newspaper Web site. Online newspapers are not the only ones seeing a shift in audience numbers. Earlier this year, Morgan Stanley’s Internet Trends Report indicated that social networking sites like YouTube and Facebook audience numbers were on the upswing with six out of 10 Web sites being of a social nature.

As noted communications theorist Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message," by which he meant that the medium influences how the message is perceived. Today, messages or information exchanges are no longer passive. In the current media landscape, we’re seeing the convergence of media like MSNBC, AOL, and Google incorporating written information with video and audio. Even though bloggers are not significant sources of news information and are currently read for entertainment value, according to the Bivings Group, approximately 95% of the top 100 newspapers include reporter blogs in order to stay competitive for audience numbers. And lastly, citizen journalists, that is citizens who actively participate in news creation and dissemination, are steadily gaining traction. Sites like Newsvine.com and CNN.com/IReport, invite audiences to contribute to the news.

While the way information is delivered and received has changed, the deadline pressures remain the same. Magazines will always have longer lead times than newspapers, whereas television, radio, and the Internet will have the shortest turnarounds.

In media relations, we aim to be proactive in working with the members of the media so that we have the opportunity to work with deadlines and help develop the stories that they produce. Working proactively allows for more control of communicating the right message, which ultimately minimizes any misunderstandings or myths. Almost as important in disseminating correct information is establishing a solid relationship with the media so that they’ll continue to seek out IFT and our members as reliable resources. IFT proactively seeks opportunities by pitching potential stories, offering food science and technology experts for interviews, and sending out monthly updates of IFT news.

Proactive media relations is our primary goal; however, there is a certain reactivity that is necessary as part of the news-gathering process. This is the case when a food safety crisis occurs or an announcement about food irradiation is made, for example. More than likely, writers, editors, and producers already have their assigned topic in queue, and they are culling their resources to add content to their piece. IFT’s Food Science Communicators Network is just one of the mechanisms we use to be a solid resource when these requests are made.

The challenging part of today’s news is the push and pull between the sender, the message, and the audience. The methods of communicating have changed. As the director of media relations, I see a ripe opportunity for IFT to influence and partake in all three points in the communication circle. IFT already works closely with the media and takes steps in establishing the organization as a thought leader through evidence-based publications, scientific papers, and our Annual Meeting & Food Expo®. We’ve even begun to reach out to consumers by creating a new food information Web page at www.IFTFoodFacts.org. This information provides consumers with timely food news they can use.

Lastly, IFT is joining the ranks of being a hands-on sender of information to empower our audience. This is evident in our activities with food safety and food labeling videos on MonkeySee.com, posting an IFT Facebook page, and the creation of a Twitter (www.Twitter.com/IFT) microblog.

Keeping up on how news is communicated helps IFT to contribute in shaping the news. I welcome other thoughts and ideas on how to move forward to educate and communicate our value to the media and consumers.

by Jeannie Houchins, R.D.,
Director of Media Relations
jhou[email protected]