Changing the Media Diet

Media consumers are not getting a balanced diet of food news. That was among the conclusions of a fascinating conversation among leading journalists and food experts convened by Planet Forward, the George Washington University-based consortium of colleges working to improve storytelling around sustainability. At a recent “Salon,” hosted by Frank Sesno, Director of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs, journalists from CBS News, National Geographic, NPR and food magazines like “Eating Well,” and digital media like “Food Tank,” surveyed the landscape of food journalism. There was agreement that there is an appetite for more news about food security, farming developments, healthy eating and the range of food-related topics, and there is a lot of great work is happening in the media-food space but the question is how to reach those who do not have good literacy and knowledge of the issues. The appetite is there for food information but the stories need a human face and a bite-sized way of communicating to diverse audiences.

Food is vital as a bridge between cultures, a source of life and energy, a means of developing societies and the joyous activity around growing food, cooking, preparing, serving and eating. But feeding billions of people while facing the challenges of climate change, scarcity, water deficits and weather volatility takes the story to a crisis level. Explaining these obstacles to those who are plentiful with food requires good storytelling, knowledge of new platforms for media, dissemination of information-rich coverage and interacting with audiences in creative ways, like via podcasts.

Complicating the food story is the fact that audiences today are skeptical of scientists and journalists. If you want to get the word out in America, the media is usually your first stop, but when it comes to science, the facts aren’t always prominent or guaranteed to be well-received. It’s not just scientists that the public is skeptical of, but the media as sources of information as well. Studies show that more mainstream, widespread sources like newspapers and television news evoke low levels of trust among respondents when talking about science. Science magazines, website and digital platforms have relatively higher levels of credibility.

Food is not just about recipes and menus. It also falls within science, technology, environment and sustainability. The general public lacks understanding when it comes to science and they don’t always agree with scientists. Take genetically modified foods, for example. While 88 percent of scientists agree it is safe to eat them, only 37 percent of the public agrees. That's a 51-percent gap between science and public opinion. Americans generally like scientists and respect science, but don’t always understand it.

We need more and better coverage of food. It is a huge subject and it may require different news “packaging” to be digestible. As one expert said, “We don’t need the full turkey dinner when it comes to news coverage of food — just tapas and morsel-sized, bite-sized nuggets!”

So let’s fight for food literacy and find engagement opportunities to bring people to the table on the issue most central to all of us: eating well.

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