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Published September 07, 2010, 09:21 AM

Agriculture needs its honest info brokers

FARGO, N.D. — Historically, ethics has been an important thing in journalism. I hope ethics isn’t becoming passe in the “today’s economy.”

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Historically, ethics has been an important thing in journalism. I hope ethics isn’t becoming passe in the “today’s economy.”

I had one reporter colleague back at The Forum in Fargo, N.D., who seemed to take ethics to almost a ridiculous extreme. One time, we were both attending a conference in a hotel. The event had a coffee service at the back and my reporter colleague went back and grabbed a cup, carefully placing a quarter on the table.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

Joe (not his real name) explained he couldn’t accept even a cup of coffee from someone he covered.

“Joe,” I said, “if they can buy you for a cup of coffee, you’re not worth buying.”

Today’s environment begs a bit of attention to this ethics issue.

I always think of my, dad, who worked as a South Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural editor for some 30 years. Ethics are important in extension, I think, and I suppose extension journalists had some sort of double responsibility. Of course as he worked for SDSU, he both was working for the public and doing public relations for SDSU. In those days, the university — its specialists and agents — seemed more separate from the industry manufacturers and suppliers.

In my mind, however, university research and extension workers are a precious thing. The main reason is they are the people’s educators, dispensing advice to farmers and others — presumably with tax dollars. They must be able to be frank and honest about their evaluations of technology, much of which is being promoted by ever bigger technology and chemical companies.

This is doubly important for university researchers themselves. Their first responsibility must be to the farmers in the field and the public in general, even though they often must get research projects and grants through companies. This seems to become increasingly important as the public dollars for supporting research in land grant universities declines. I imagine it gets dicey when they offer advice on crops and products in their home state while working for extra money for the same companies in other states.

Every time a researcher or extension official offers his or her assessment of a chemical application rate, or whether it is advisable at all, the public must be confident it is without a conflict of interest. The farmers deserve the knowledge that any advice is based on the best facts available — not some cozy, hidden personal relationship or favors from a private company and its representative.

If an extension official or researcher accepts something that others could perceive as “value” from a company, there should be twinge. The same goes for journalists.

You may have read that print journalism is facing a dicey financial outlook. You’ve probably read about that in a newspaper, I often joke to people. But I also say, “Don’t forget: Things are rarely as good — or as bad — as it says in a newspaper.”

Still, there are pressures. As it turns 25, Agweek faces competition from others who not only accept project-by-project sponsorship for trips and other reporting, but demand that kind of support. They’ll even solicit the support with one hand and offer the story with the other. It’s has become standard to marry advertising and editorial, promoting this or that bit of information is sponsored by this or that company. Lines blur when news sources act as reporters one minute, but are hucksters the next.

We’re not perfect, but I hope we can be as honest an information broker as you can find. Today’s farmers needs that, and so do tomorrow’s.

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