The End of Food? When a Complex Policy Debate Falls Between News Beats

Energy. Climate change. The food crisis. These are pressing and complex problems that span science, economics, politics, and culture. Yet when it comes to news coverage of these issues, attention tends be event-driven and sporadic. Perhaps worse there's often a policy vacuum in coverage.

At the science beat, there's coverage of the science. At the business beat, there's a focus on industry trends, trade regulation, and the occasional consumer profile. At the political beat, there's a heavy accent on strategy and conflict, with a narrow emphasis on just the Democrats' or Republicans' plan to do something about the problem along with a lot of dramatic he said-she said claims.

Yet what's lost within the structure of our traditional news beats is a focus on the range of possible policy solutions that experts (not politicians) propose for dealing with the problem. Too often a policy solution only gets covered once it's up for consideration in Congress or at the White House, and at that moment it's covered by political reporters who focus more on the power dynamics of Washington (who wins, who loses) than the context for the policy itself. As a consequence, the public misses out on what other alternatives could have been implemented and why only one or two policy proposals actually made it to vote or consideration.

It's only at an outlet such as The Economist that you find regular background and context on the policy implications of issues such as climate change, energy, and the food crisis. Our elite newspapers such as the NY Times and the Washington Post have run incredibly valuable series on energy and the food crisis, but rarely is this much needed type of policy focus and context sustained in the American press, even though the urgency of these problems continues to escalate.

Like others, I've argued that a fundamental reconsideration of how editors organize their coverage and news beats is needed. Problems such as energy, climate change, and the food crisis are not going away. Along with immigration, income inequality, and social security, they are likely to be the juggernaut challenges of twentieth century American politics. We need a new breed of credentialed journalists trained in science, economics, and policy to cover these issues and editors need to consider how these issues fit into their beat structure and as front page news.

That's the focus of a recent Columbia Journalism Review feature that I blogged about last week and its also the topic of discussion at a recent segment of NPR's On the Media, featuring End of Food author Paul Roberts. Play the full audio above or go here for the full transcript. Some highlights below the fold.

BOB GARFIELD: Periodically, we'll see food safety stories in the U.S. press, and we occasionally see coverage of genetically modified foods. But, at least until recently, you just had never seen anything to do with the food supply. Is there any infrastructure in the media for covering the economy of food?

PAUL ROBERTS: There isn't really a level of expertise or a discipline that centers on food. To the extent that food is covered in the media, it's primarily about kind of in the Martha Stewart vein. You know, it's about cooking shows. It's diet. It's nutrition. Food safety, of course, in the past two years has become an issue, and there's been sort of a surge in the development of expertise among journalists and a lot of good writing, finally, about food safety.

But like you're right. What we haven't come to grips with yet, until recently, has been the notion that we might be short of food. And that's, I think, taking a while for the media to really get its head around....

...BOB GARFIELD: I'm glad you raised the issue of what exactly the press should be doing, because there's really kind of two ways to cover a story like this, you know, a five- or six-day series, and you give it a title, "Hungry for Solutions" or some such.

The other way to cover a story is to create beats and to bring the various disciplines of economics and science and politics to bear on an ongoing story. Is there any evidence that that second path is being followed by anybody?

PAUL ROBERTS: Yes, there is evidence. In the same way that oil is now a beat, I think food is going to emerge. And it's probably going to be some of the same reporters, because they will have developed some expertise in reporting on resources, on commodities markets, on financial complexities of commodities generally, and it won't be too hard to make the jump. I mean, energy is energy, you know, whether it's calories or kilowatts.

I look at papers, like The New York Times is actually doing a pretty good job. It's got an ongoing series - I believe it's "The Food Chain." They just did this great story on how hedge funds are now investing in farm infrastructure and kind of asking well, is that good or bad.

So the fact that a mainstream news organization is not only alerting us to the fact that this is going on but is starting to examine it critically is a really encouraging sign.

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