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Sorting the roles of journalists and other communicators in addressing rural-urban issues

What do IFAJ members and other agricultural journalists and communicators see as their role in rural-urban relations? And has that role changed – even with those who report solely to farmers – given the public’s new interest in agriculture, food, the environment and rural affairs?

By Jim Evans, University of Illinois and Owen Roberts, University of Guelph

The question of journalists’ and communicators’ roles has pestered us during this series about how IFAJ members can effectively help deal with rural-urban issues. Originally, we did not intend to address the question of roles. We planned a series with three parts:

Part 1. Emphasize the broad and growing array of rural-urban issues that need to be addressed throughout the world. (“The growing angst in rural-urban relations”)

Part 2. Take a close look at why these rural-urban issues are often so challenging for journalists. (“Great laments in rural-urban relations – and why these issues are so difficult to cover”)

Part 3. Identify specific ways in which IFAJ members can help address rural-urban issues effectively.

The first two parts went well and generated encouraging responses. Now, in addressing the “how to” part of this series, we come face to face with the diverse and evolving settings in which IFAJ members operate.  Any single “how to” list falls into disarray.

So we are inserting a different Part 3 in the series.  It examines the roles of IFAJ members, and other professionals, working within two different settings.

  • Journalists affiliated with independent commercial media. They work for agricultural or general media that rely for their economic wellbeing upon subscription income from readers and/or advertising income from sale of time or space to a variety of advertisers. Their lot as supporters of a free and unbridled media may be tougher than ever, with the economic downturn.
  • Journalists and other communicators affiliated with point-of-view organizations. They work for entities such as agricultural organizations, breed and commodity groups, agricultural marketing firms, advertising agencies and communications firms, government agencies, educational institutions, research groups and nongovernmental organizations with agricultural interests. They represent points of view. They are highly varied, as a population, compared to commercial media.

Roles of independent journalists in covering rural-urban issues

“Everyone hates the media.  But people think journalists are needed to explain the complex workings of society.”  That comment by Lydia Miljan in Hidden agendas: How journalists influence the news reflects a traditional role of independent journalists.  IFAJ members and other agricultural journalists who work with independent media – and citizen journalists (a.k.a. bloggers) — exercise this responsibility in various ways.  Here are sample roles, as identified by IFAJ members and others involved in covering rural-urban and other kinds of complex issues:

  • Kindle the flame between media and society.  Former IFAJ President Hans Matthiesen of Germany invited that effort in a 2002 IFAJ News article about media deserving to be in the doghouse.  He called for reporting that is democratic, substantive and balanced, reporting that provides context and stirs civic engagement (Mattheisen, 2).  Similarly, Douglas P. Starr, professor of agricultural journalism at Texas A&M University, emphasizes that “government by the people depends upon people’s access to information, information that is provided by the news media, mainly newspapers and their World Wide Web pages and their reporters, news editors, and copyeditors, all of whom contribute to the accuracy and objectivity of the news story (Starr, 1).
  • Observe trends. G. Pascal Zachary is among those who have urged media to watch closely for trends at the rural-urban interface.  He cited, as an example, trends involving food imports (Zachary, 13).  Canadian agricultural journalist John Greig recently provided another example. He observed that agricultural organizations may be becoming more secretive in their deliberations (Greig).
  • Identify, analyze and assess rural-urban issues. This relates to the “watchdog” role of independent media, extending beyond the vital role of watching and reporting on what the government is doing. In an article, “The media’s role in preventing and moderating conflict,” Robert Karl Manoff suggested that media can provide early warning of impending conflicts and identify the underlying interests and core values of disputants.  He observed that media also can frame issues in a way that they become more susceptible to management and identify resources that may be available to help resolve conflicts (Manoff, 4-5).
  • Dig deep and fill the gaps. This role contributes to the traditional value of journalists as independent investigators. It helps provide context, balance and accuracy in addressing rural-urban issues. It moves beyond what Matthew McKinney and Will Harmon describe as simply naming problems in partial, preconceived ways that reinforce polarized positions (McKinney, 9). Sensationalism may attract audiences, but it seldom contributes to social problem-solving. We would note that digging deep into rural-urban matters need not always involve digging up dirt. Writing in The Farm Journalist (Canadian Farm Writers Federation), Henry Heald noted, “We praise the investigative journalist who finds where the dirt is hidden and exposes it; who flushes the cheats out of the back rooms and makes them be honest about their misuse of public funds.” Heald also emphasized the need for investigative journalists “who will find and expose the hard working men and women who play by the rules and set honest values and high standards for society” (Heald, 1-2).
  • Bring diverse interests together. In this role, independent agricultural journalists can help bring all relevant stakeholders to the table for rural-urban problem-solving. Some stakeholders are proactive and vocal while others often are quiet and out of sight. In the context of development, Zachary describes this journalist role as giving voice to the voiceless.  “Bottom-up reporting can produce memorable stories and give readers and viewers a clearer sense of the human dimensions of a problem.” (Zachary, 11). Journalists exercise this role in the interest of providing balance.  Their efforts help inform and educate parties about a rural-urban issue by revealing the full breadth of perspectives surrounding it.
  • Cut through contradictory facts and viewpoints. Independent agricultural journalists often find themselves caught in a tug-of-war between varied and conflicting viewpoints – within agriculture, as well as between agriculture and other parts of society. That is a price these journalists pay for being in a unique position to reveal contradictions and shed light on illusory facts, conditions or perspectives.  They pay that price willingly, if sometimes painfully, in the pursuit of effective coverage. Even when they assume a defensible fall-back position, such as whether their sources’ points of views are research- or science-based, they are still held up for ridicule for being biased.
  • Help clear the fog.  By training and experience, independent agricultural journalists take pride in this role.  They confront a barrage of “official speak,” scientific jargon and other complexities of many rural-urban issues.  Jon Hamilton has written about this, for example, in a public radio broadcast about “sifting through official speak on bird flu.” (Hamilton)
  • Create neutral spaces for mediation and dialogue.  From their special platform, independent agricultural journalists are in an excellent, non-aligned position to stimulate dialogue in rural-urban issues.  This function takes many forms such as establishing transparency of one conflict party to another, relaying negotiating signals between parties that have no formal communications, providing an outlet for the emotions of parties and avoiding stereotyping (Manoff, 4-5).
  • Provide the independent voice.  Stand up and be counted, which in theory is easier than ever, given the emergence of citizen journalism and the way subjectivity and objectivity have become so blurred on the pages of newspapers with seemingly endless commentary.  But is this unholy blend confusing for readers?  And do advertisers, who are becoming increasingly scarce sources of revenue, want the media in which they appear to have advocacy roles?  Research among agricultural journalists in the U. S. reveals increasing advertising-related pressure on editorial content (Banning and Evans).
  • Inform agricultural interests about what society is expecting of agriculture. Leonore Noorduyn emphasized this role in an IFAJ News article several years ago (Noorduyn). Agricultural interests spend a lot of time telling society what it should think about farming, but less time listening carefully and continuously to what society is thinking.  Independent agricultural journalists can help society feed back to farming, using varied conventional – and social – communication tools.  Holly Martin, agricultural editor and current president of the American Agricultural Editors’ Association, emphasized this role in a recent issue of AAEA ByLine:  “My role is to speak to agriculture producers about the importance of consumers,” she said. It may involve urging them to “educate consumers, one 30-second sound bite at a time” (Martin).  We would add that it may also involve alerting producers and other agricultural interests to public viewpoints about rural-urban issues.
  • Address misconceptions and distinguish between myths.  Larry Sheedy, former IFAJ president from Ireland, emphasized this role in a 2005 IFAJ News article (Sheedy). It seems especially important when such addresses are tied to conventional events which create public opportunities to speak, such as farm shows, and unconventional events, such as virtual farm tours.

Clearly, a free press is vital for journalists to carry out these roles.

Also, it is important to note that roles of independent journalists vary by country and setting (e.g., differences between approaches in Western and other countries).  This is an opportunity for broad discovery, such as how agricultural journalists in eastern countries regard information providers and what those groups can do to promote trust and credibility.

Roles of point-of-view communicators
who work with rural-urban issues

Here we are in the realm of public relations and public information that emphasizes change (or sometimes opposition to change) related to rural-urban issues. Many issues are narrow, focused, immediate and specialized (e.g., product marketing or a food recall) while others are broad, unshaped and long-range (e.g., rural community development, perceptions of farmers and farming).  Across all this range, however, professional journalists and communicators carry out some shared roles.  And those roles are becoming more important than ever in addressing rural-urban issues.

  • Identify and listen carefully to voices of those with a stake in the issue. Agricultural point-of-view communicators need strategic minds to identify all voices relevant to a rural-urban issue, skills to “tune in” on those voices and wisdom to answer the “now what” questions. Independent media practice this role, by tradition.  Reporters commonly seek multiple sources, in search of balance.  However, they typically use fewer sources than commonly needed for point-of-view communicating – and for a different purpose. We note how this traditional role of media is increasingly being taken up by point-of-view organizations.
  • Create alliances with others who have related interests. In this role the communicator identifies potential allies and helps establish relationships with them to address an issue at hand.  For example, the communications director of a state commodity organization has urged farm organizations to drop traditional boundaries and consider alliances whenever they feel inclined to go it alone in the face of rural-urban issues (Prairie Farmer, 15).  Similarly, Lorna Michael Butler advised participants of an agricultural outlook conference to bring diverse interests together (Butler, 9).  Skilled communicators help do so.
  • Engage citizens. Point-of-view communicators play this role for a variety of reasons that are both democratic and economic in nature. “Tap the strengths of many partners to name problems, frame a set of solutions, take actions and achieve desired outcomes, rather than limit participation to prescribed steps in an official decision-making process,” urged Matthew McKinney and Will Harmon.  “Citizens and stakeholders bring valuable information, ideas, and insights to the table that need to be integrated with the knowledge and authority of experts and official decision-makers (McKinney, 9).  Of course, engaging citizens is also a pillar of citizen journalism.
  • Confront and challenge.  “Almost everyone agrees on the need to be more proactive,” we said several years ago in writing about challenges facing Canadian agriculture in telling its story to the public and getting urban media to listen (Roberts, 2004). This is a role that Avrim Lazar has called kicking back with facts (Roberts, June 2004).
  • Encourage media coverage that fully and accurately reflects your point of view.This is the role in which point-of-view communicators provide information services to independent media about specific rural-urban issues.  Agricultural journalists with independent media pick and choose information from varied sources, as they prefer.  The point-of-view communicator aims to provide choice-worthy information and perspective.
  • Provide good, clear communications.  The agricultural sector “desperately needs good and clear communication with the general public and other interest groups,” IFAJ member Markus Rediger of Switzerland has observed (Rediger). In this role, the point-of-view communicator uses many of the same tools and methods as the independent agricultural journalist uses.  However, audience, timing and channel are often “givens” for the independent agricultural journalist. The point-of-view communicator must select the intended audience as well as the media mix, timing, pacing and other dimensions of a coordinated communications effort.

            These roles of skilled point-of-view agricultural communicators are extremely valuable in addressing the growing array of rural-urban issues.  Effective communicators can be the key to success for their organizations.  “The New Integrators” is how Louis Capozzi describes public relations consultants in a changing world.  “Public relations consultants are uniquely qualified to lead in this new environment” (Capozzi, 2).

All are important – and all share some core goals and roles

We come through this thinking process with two over-arching    impressions:

  1. IFAJ members and other journalists and communicators in both of these settings – independent and point-of-view – are vital to effective understanding and resolution of rural-urban issues. In a democratic society, both carry out critically important functions.  Neither is more or less professional or important.  And the roles of both are changing rapidly.
  2. Journalists and communicators in both settings share some core goals and roles.a. Top-notch independent journalists and point-of-view communicators alike provide an “honest broker” function that serves all parties to a rural-urban issue. That is, they strive to operate actively and fully in the best interest of those they reach as well as those they represent.
  3. They help move such issues beyond “fireworks and battlefield” mentalities and toward informed, effective joint problem-solving. To that end, they emphasize traditional and new approaches (including social communications tools) that promote dialogue and conversation rather than a one-way flow of information.
  4. They subscribe to high standards of professional ethics, truthfulness and responsibility.
  5. They share a keen interest in reporting information accurately and responsibly.
  6. They share an important perspective about the nature of advocacy, a perspective that emphasizes ears to hear, minds to learn and hearts to care.

What added (or different) roles would you suggest for journalists who work with independent media in covering rural-urban issues?

What added (or different) roles would you suggest for agricultural communicators who work in point-of-view settings such as agricultural organizations, breed and commodity groups, agri-marketing firms, and advertising agencies and communications firms, government agencies, educational institutions, research groups and nongovernmental organizations with agricultural interests?

And what about specialists or specialties within agricultural communications, such as photographers and photography?  Or publishers?  Or teachers and professors?  Do they have further unique roles as agricultural communicators in their own right, in addressing rural-urban issues?

Please send your comments and suggestions to the authors:

Jim Evans  evansj(at)

Owen Roberts  owen(at)


— (January 2003). Toe to toe with the activists: stories from the trenches. Prairie Farmer, 175(1), 15.

Banning, Stephen and James Evans. (2001) Fading voices: A 10-year trend within an agricultural advertiser-media-reader triad.  Journal of Applied Communications, 85(2),  21-38.  Abstract posted at:

Butler, Lorna Michael. (2002).  Rural-urban interdependency and the future of agriculture. Presentation at Agricultural Outlook Forum 2002, Washington, D. C., February 22. Posted at:

Capozzi, Louis. (2006). Who are the new integrators?  International Communications Consultancy Organisation, Hilversum, The Netherlands.  Posted at:

Greig, John.  (2008). Farm groups are getting secretive. Ontario Farmer, A7.  Posted at:

Hamilton, Jon. (2006).  Sifting through official speak on bird flu. Report on National Public Radio Online, March 3.  Posted at:

Heald, Henry F. (January 2007). The media: messengers for change.  The Farm Journalist, published by the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation, 2-3.  Posted at:

Martin, Holly. (November/December 2008). What is our role?  AAEA ByLine, American Agricultural Editors’ Association, p. 1.  Posted at:

Manoff, Robert Karl. (1997). The media’s role in preventing and moderating conflict.  Paper prepared for the Virtual Diplomacy Conference hosted by the United States Institute of Peace, Washington, D. C., April 1-2.  Posted at:

Mattheisen, Hans. (October 2002).  If media is in the doghouse, maybe we deserve it. IFAJ News, 2-3.  Posted at:

McKinney, Matthew and Will Harmon. (December 2007). Governing nature, governing ourselves: engaging citizens in natural resource decisions, Part 1.  International Journal of Public Participation, 1(2).  Posted at:

Noorduyn, Leonore. (July 2004). Write more about society views, says research.  IFAJ News, 2.  Posted at:

Rediger, Markus. (2005). Communication between farmers and the public. Paper presented at the 2005 Congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, Thun, Switzerland, August 31-September 4, 2005.  Posted at:

Roberts, Owen. (June 2004).  The challenge for agriculture: telling its story to the public – and getting urban media to listen. Better Farming, 3. Posted at:

Roberts, Owen. (2004). Lumber has lessons for farmers. Guelph Mercury (Canada), September 27, A3.

Sheedy, Larry. (January 2005). International survey reveals changing world of agricultural journalists. IFAJ News, 3.

Starr, Douglas P. (2009) The future of the United States.  Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications, Texas A&M University, College Station.

Zachary, G. Pascal.  (May 2007). Global media and the development story. International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C. Posted at:

(Note:  This professional development feature is provided through a partnership of IFAJ and the Agricultural Communications Documentation Center, University of Illinois. Please check with the Center at docctr(at)  about gaining access to references not available online.)

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