10 Things You Need to Know to Tell the Food Story

The past few years have seen a boom in stories on food and agriculture. Everyone is talking about how we will feed the coming 9 billion people, and it’s become all too clear that most of the world doesn’t understand how our food system works. The media is left with a huge gap in public knowledge that it must find new, innovative ways to fill. But how do we explain such a complicated issue through an ever-evolving media platform?

Vermont's Middlebury College and Planet Forward hosted a salon to discuss just that, bringing together thought leaders from major media outlets such as National Geographic, Eating Well Magazine, Food Tank, and a host of other organizations to discuss the future of food.

1) Meet your audience where they’re comfortable.

People are getting their news from an ever-increasing list of non-traditional mediums, like Buzzfeed, news apps and interactive sites. As GW student Anna Sumi explained, “I honestly get my news from Facebook. I’m way more likely to watch a minute-and-a-half-long video on my newsfeed than to read a huge article.” Give them the options they demand, like quick lists.

2) Find stories that go against stereotypes.

NPR’s Food and Agriculture Correspondent Dan Charles has noticed an increasing trend towards divisive media and reliance on stereotypes. “For better or worse, there are more people today who have more strongly held views on food production,” Charles said. “They have a very narrow story in their head that they interpret things through. I try to find stories that go against these stereotypes.” Food stories should avoid playing to a “side” and make the information accessible to everyone.

3) Establish relationships within communities.

Student and professional journalists alike talked about the importance of finding contacts in the community where your story takes place. They know local history and customs better than anyone and can give you context, content and further contacts. Take advantage of their knowledge and do their story justice. Danielle Nierenberg, the President and Founder of Food Tank, explained that “sometimes you just have to wing it.” During a multi-year trip across Africa, she found her best contacts by making contact with communities and getting ideas from local journalists and citizens that she met organically. An “immersion approach” can sometimes be the best way to find real stories.

4) Put a human face on the issue.

Repeatedly we see the power of people talking to people. Characters are the driving force in the impact of a story, so focus on the workers, focus on the restaurateurs and focus on the change-makers to tell your audience about what is happening. Devin Greene, Planet Forward’s Digital Media Coordinator, recently went to Ethiopia and did videos on a number of social innovations. His most valuable moment? “A bunch of kids took our video equipment and started filming themselves," he said. "As our youngest explorers, they make more of an impact than just the innovations by far.”

5) Multimedia can do what just words can’t.

Words can create a picture in your head, but an image can show you more in an instant. In an increasingly clickable, instant news culture, photography and videos are capturing a larger audience. On the other hand, podcasts are exploding on the scene, with audiences craving a deeper look into issues that they can take on the go.

6) You don’t need to tell the whole story in one long sitting.

As journalist Brian Monroe noted, “Journalists are inclined to create a ‘turkey dinner’ of a story. We should be going for ‘tapas’ stories: quick, bite-sized and digestible.” As journalism evolves, we need to evolve with it. A snapshot of information can hook a reader in, inspiring them to learn more.

7) Find stories people relate to.

What does the audience really care about? No matter your political or religious affiliations, food loss and waste are something that everyone wants to learn how to reduce. Saving money is something everyone wants to do. Find an accessible channel to spark their interest.

8) Give your audience something to do.

Everyone needs more information on the food story, but a burst of information on this vast topic can leave audiences overwhelmed and helpless. Shrink stories down and end with a call to action, whether that is ways to preserve food to reduce waste or types of flowers they can plant to help build up honeybee colonies.

9) Don’t just inform, educate.

National Geographic’s Executive Editor for the Environment, Dennis Dimick, reminded the panel that the media has a responsibility to be an active voice in the community. This means finding new ways to explain issues to the next generation. “How will we make finding this information comfortable and easy for the new decision makers of our society?” Dimick said. We can no longer passively put information out in the world. It’s time to give solutions, as well.

10) Find those who need the story most.

The “appetite” for food stories is expanding every day, but the communities who need this information the most often don’t have the vocabulary or the resources to access them. While we show the world the importance of food issues, we need to keep in mind the audiences that are so often overlooked. Former Washington Editor for CNN Bryan Monroe has noticed this disparity in information all too often. “I went to a gas station food store and saw rows upon rows of dry, processed stuff," he said. "Unfortunately it was a big hit, which is a shame. Those are the people we need to be reaching.”

We can put these stories out in the world, but unless they reach the people who need this information, they will never have the impact that is needed. 

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.