Rather than spending their time outside on green pastures, as depicted in the “Happy Cows come from California” commercials, the cows at one of the largest dairies in New York state stay indoors.

The producers of the ABC News program “Nightline” focused on that particular dairy Tuesday night in an unflattering piece.

“The 5,000 cows here spend every day of their lives inside giant, manure-filled, crowded barns,” said ABC chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross. “The cows are fed a special diet of grain and nutrients once a day, and kept perpetually pregnant through artificial insemination so milk production levels will remain high.”

Here’s an exchange between Ross and the person who runs the farm, Lyn Odell:

Ross: “They call you a factory farm. You don’t really care for the animals.”

Odell: “I think they can’t be farther from the truth. Our animals are critically important to our well-being, so we work hard to treat them well.”

That is when “Nightline” trotted out undercover videos that had been taken at the farm by an investigator for the group Mercy for Animals. The videos, Ross said, raise some serious questions. There are scenes of tail docking, dehorning — referred to as “burning off the horns on a young cow” — and even a farm supervisor hitting one of the cows on the head with a heavy wrench.

Ross called these scenes "disturbing."  He referred to tail-docking as a common practice at dairies across the country.

“These animals are really treated as little more than milk-producing machines — animals with open wounds, animals having their babies dragged from their sides,” pointed out Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals.         

“Nightline” producers also interviewed Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation. 

Here is a video clip of Tuesday night's broadcast, entitled "Disturbing Reality of Dairy Land."      

A follow-up interview with Galen on the AgriTalk radio network Wednesday reveals that dairy officials took an ABC News producer and a camera crew to a farm in Pennsylvania in December so they could understand what happens on a dairy farm, but ABC News virtually ignored that trip in its footage on Tuesday night.

 

This isn’t the first critical piece on the dairy industry, nor will it be the last.

It’s the nature of the news media to search out the negative, the sensational. I learned that lesson all too well while a reporter for a newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Once, I interviewed a convenience store clerk shortly after she had been robbed. I asked all of the right questions — or thought I did — of a woman who was still visibly shaken by the experience. Then, when I got back to the newsroom, my editor wondered if I had asked her what it was like to have a gun pointed in her face.

We were judged by how well we asked the hard questions. We gained favor if we went out and got the impact stories — the kind that get placed on the front page rather than page 13.

Here’s one of my front-page stories:

In December 1977, a jail inmate kicked out a window in the new Public Safety Building and escaped. 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. I had “earned my keep” that day.

The fact of the matter is that more people read sensational, negative stories than “feel-good” 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:

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? — Tom Quaife, editor