In mid-January, we heard that the ABC News program “Nightline” would air a piece about the dairy industry. It was originally scheduled for Jan. 20, but got postponed so that more coverage could be given to the earthquake in Haiti and the Massachusetts senatorial election.
With advance warning from Dairy Management Inc., which manages the national dairy-checkoff program, we told our readers that the segment would probably be critical of the dairy industry.
But isn’t that the norm these days when it comes to the news media?
Many of you remember the hatchet job that TIME magazine did on modern American agriculture last August. The news media is all too willing to cover the outrageous or sensational, such as the antics employed by PETA and others.
When I tell people that I am with the media, I add in a few qualifications. I tell them that I work for a business publication that tries to help its readers and does everything it can to ensure accuracy.
But having worked on a daily newspaper, I understand the temptation that many in the media have for the sensational.
In December 1977, while working for a newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., I wrote about an interesting jail escape: The inmate simply kicked out a window in the brand-new Public Safety Building. When officials investigated, they found that windows in the first-floor holding section had not been fitted with unbreakable Lexguard. And, since no one had put a steel screen in front of the glass window, it was a fairly easy shot for the inmate.
Then, a few weeks later, the county commissioners heard about numerous other “bugs” in the building, including improperly installed windows, a towel rack in a shower room that prisoners were able to tear down, sprinkler systems installed in rooms with a high concentration of electronics, and more. To combat the immediate problem of prisoners kicking out windows, officials decided to take away the prisoners’ shoes.
My headline that day read, “Minnehaha inmates go without shoes.” It was plastered across the top of the front page. My editors loved it.
For us reporters, it was always a subtle reward to have a front-page story. And usually, the more sensational stories qualified.
The fact is that readers often like the more sensational, negative stories.
Look at the stories that got the most reader interest — in terms of the number of people who clicked the hyperlink — from our Dairy Alert e-newsletter during 2009:
- Death on a factory farm (Feb. 25)
- Suicides a tragic result of farm economy (July 15)
- Yikes! This was up on Yahoo! (Dec. 16)
- 'Happy Cow' commercials come under fire (Oct. 21)
- Farmer sells water for $77 million! (Sept. 2)
- No excuses for calf-dumping! (Feb. 11)
- TIME trashes American agriculture (Aug. 26)
- Dean Foods under the microscope (Sept. 23)
- PETA strikes out at 'America's Dairyland' (July 1)
- 'Jon & Kate' ends on a dairy farm (Nov. 25)
It’s kind of a chicken-or-the-egg argument: Which came first? News outlets that like to be sensational or readers who like sensational stories?