Letter to Romenesko
From BILL READER, journalism professor, Ohio University: The Atlantic’s article [on the Amish and agribusiness] is not just wrong with regard to the local facts in St. Lawrence County. It also exhibits the stereotypically blasé rhetoric, silly stereotypes, and hapless ignorance about the realities of farming that we see all too often when big-city journalists try to write about something they know very little about.
If you are a journalist writing about a farm-related issue and can’t answer any of these five questions, you should probably hand off the story to a colleague who does:
— What is the difference between hay and straw?
— What is the difference between “till” and “no-till” farming?
— Why is a “steer” different from a “heifer,” and why are both different from a “cow”?
— What is the meaning of “farrow to finish”?
— What is the PTO on a tractor used for?
As fewer and fewer people have direct, first-person experiences with farmers and farms, the more likely it will be that, A, journalists will report factual errors and then stubbornly defend them and, B, those errors will further erode the public’s understanding about the sources of their food and fiber. In The Atlantic story, some additional errors included referring to “baling hay” as a “daily chore” (baling hay happens infrequently, perhaps just two or three times each summer) and over-emphasizing the importance of the spring-planted wheat crop (about three-forths of the total wheat crop in the U.S. is planted in the fall for overwintering and early-summer harvest; the writer almost certainly saw “spring wheat,” meaning “this year’s wheat fields” were, for the most part, already harvested months earlier — and New York is not a major producer of either kind of wheat.