Skills and approaches media can use to cover rural-urban relations

Turning to helpful skills, tools and perspectives reporters can use

By Jim Evans and Owen Roberts

Editor’s note: Earlier features in this special IFAJ series on rural-urban communications explored aspects such as:

  • Look at this huge and expanding agenda for rural-urban interactions.
  • Why are such interactions often so difficult to address?
  • What roles do journalists and other communicators play in doing so?

Now we confront the “how to” questions. We will try to provide a set of useful tips and methods for effective rural-urban communicating.

This fourth feature focuses specifically on methods for use by journalists who are affiliated with commercial, non-aligned media. That is, they work as employees or freelancers with agricultural or general media that rely for economic well-being upon subscription income from readers and/or advertising income from sale of time or space to a variety of advertisers.

Three types of rural-urban coverage

You may find it useful to think about three types of rural-urban coverage:

  1. Filling knowledge gaps in rural-urban understanding. This type of coverage is mainly informational and often feature-oriented.  For example, it helps urban residents learn about rural life, people and activities.  In turn, it helps rural residents learn about the needs, interests and perceptions of urban residents.
  2. Covering rural-urban interests in conflict. This type of coverage is usually topical.  It may focus on any of hundreds of topics – local, regional, national or international.  It puts the reporter into the midst of conflict, or potential conflict.
  3. Covering rural-urban inequities and imbalances. This type of coverage deals less with direct rural-urban conflict than with social or economic forces that create rural-urban inequities. Such inequities may not be obvious or crying for the reporter’s attention.  Instead, they may be awaiting the reporter’s discovery and follow-up.

What follows are some of the reporting approaches and skills reporters are using to cover each of these types.  You will also find examples and descriptions that illustrate each method. They are international in scope, but undoubtedly you will deal with many specific topics that are different from these and unique to your area.

Note that all three of these approaches – filling rural-urban information gaps, covering conflicts and covering inequities/imbalances – involve the reporter as a non-aligned voice.  These approaches do not involve the reporter as an advocate, championing any cause or point of view, even in situations that involve complex, divisive rural-urban issues. Types 2 and 3, in particular, take the journalist into the realm of investigative reporting. You will find tools for analyzing such issues and shedding light on them in ways that lead to better rural-urban understanding and active problem-solving.  You will explore “sharp-eye, dig-deep” reporting that makes this sector of agricultural journalism exciting, intriguing – and uniquely valuable.

  1. Filling knowledge gaps in rural-urban understanding
  2. Report news and trends

            News-oriented information related to agriculture flows through articles, broadcasts, photos or other means.  Urban residents generally gain access to it through general media while rural residents often gain access to it through agricultural as well as general media. To the consternation of rural interests, observers have noted a decline, over time, in the amount of such information offered by general media. (That’s another story, internationally.) Topics covered by general media sometimes involve:

  • Crop conditions and forces (such as rainfall, temperatures) that affect them
  • Financial circumstances of food producers
  • Trends in international trade of agricultural products
  • News about government policies and program related to agriculture
  • Changes and trends in numbers and types of farms and enterprises
  • New foods and new uses of farm products (e.g., bioenergy)

Here are examples of this type of informational reporting by general media about news and trends related to agriculture:

Example: “Public ‘unaware’ of food origins.”  Report by the BBC, UK, citing
results of a survey about the extent to which consumers are aware of the origins of foods they eat. Read more:
news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6731659.stm

Example: “The new coop de ville.”  Article in Newsweek magazine, USA, describing a growing interest in urban poultry farming. Read more:
www.newsweek.com/id/168740

Example:”The price of dinner” Article in The Age, Melbourne,Australia, to inform readers about steps in the process by which animals become meat for their meals. Read more:                                                                                                  www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/11/17/1226770301197.html

          Agricultural media also convey (to their rural audiences) news and trends such as those mentioned above.  In addition, the agricultural media can convey other uniquely important kinds of news about rural-urban relations. That is, they can help the rural sector gain understanding about the urban sector.  For example, they can inform their rural audiences about:

  • What consumers are doing, in terms of topics such as food buying and diet trends
  • What consumers, policy makers and others are thinking, in terms of rural matters
  • Needs and opportunities for strengthening rural-urban interactions
  • Ways in which producers are taking steps to strengthen rural-urban interactions through efforts such as direct marketing and rural tourism
  • Ways in which rural organizations are working to strengthen rural-urban understanding

Here is an example of such reporting by agricultural media

Example: “Consumer acceptance key to biofuels industry future.”  Article in        Successful Farming magazine informs farmers about how consumers influence returns from crops produced for fuel.  Read more:
www.agriculture.com/ag/story.jhtml

  1. Report through features

            Rural-oriented features are the “bread and butter” means by which newspapers and other general media acquaint their audiences with rural people, life, activities and roles.  This type of coverage often involves approaches such as:

  • Features about unusual farm enterprises
  • Personality features and other stories about the lives and interests of those on the land
  • Photo stories featuring rural settings, natural resources and the environment
  • Following a crop through a season, from planting to harvest and beyond

Here are examples of approaches used in general and rural media to generate features that fill gaps in rural-urban understanding:

Example: “Reporting on agriculture in metropolitan media.”  Describes the career and journalistic approach of a farm-based rural journalist whose column  appeared in The Advertiser, Adelaide, South Australia.  Also includes sample columns she wrote. Read more:
www.ifaj.org/en/professional-development/articles/reporting-on-agriculture-in-metropolitan-media.html

Example: “Getting inside the rural enthusiast’s home.” Article in AgriMarketing   magazine describing the approaches used in rural lifestyle magazines         published by four media organizations in Canada and USA. Read more:
http://www.agrimarketing.com/show_story.php?id=33226

  1. Provide edu-tainment

            This type of rural-urban reporting by media combines the goals of educating and entertaining.  It seeks to inform about rural life, people and activities through information that is embedded in entertainment.

Example: “The Archers.”  World’s longest running radio soap opera series.        Broadcast on BBC Radio, it features the life and activities of a farm family, the Archers, in a fictional village in the English Midlands.  Read more from the home page:
www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/archers

Some rural-oriented feature films for popular audiences also fit into this category.

  1. Sponsor informational events

            Media sometimes organize and sponsor events that help inform at the rural-urban interface.  Such events usually take place at local or regional levels.  Types of event can vary widely and take many forms, such as:

  • Agricultural displays in urban shopping areas
  • Public events featuring descriptions and sampling of locally produced foods
  • Broadcast coverage of agricultural shows and competitions

Example: “Farm Progress Show.” Web site describes an event sponsored by an agricultural media firm, Farm Progress Companies. Exhibits, demonstrations, rural life programs, entertainment and other features inform rural and urban visitors about developments and trends in agriculture.  Read more:
www.farmprogressshow.com

  1. Develop partnerships

            Media can help increase rural-urban understanding by partnering with groups sharing that goal.  General media can team with rural-oriented organizations while agricultural media can team with organizations that reach out to urban interests.

Example: “With ag myths running rampant, who you gonna call?”  Radio Station WDAY, Fargo, North Dakota, USA developed a program, “Charlie’s       Challenge,” in collaboration with the state farm bureau organization.  The        program used a quiz format and was voiced by a 10-year-old boy.  Read more on page 8 of this issue: www.fb.org/newsroom/fbn/2008/FBN_04-07-08.pdf

  1. Covering rural-urban interests in conflict
  2. Some kinds of rural-urban conflict that call for coverage

         Whew.  The list is longer than space permits us to offer in full. You can identify about 100 types of rural-urban conflict in our Feature #1 of this series: “Growing angst in rural-urban relations: how agricultural journalists face an expanding menu of issues”
www.ifaj.org/fileadmin/user_upload/News/news_archive/IFAJWebFeatureAngst05_08_or.pdf

However, here are a few areas of rural-urban conflict that invite coverage at local, regional, national and international levels – and in countries around the globe:

  • Uses of agricultural pesticides – environmental, health, sustainability issues
  • Animal welfare, livestock management
  • Healthfulness and safety of food products
  • Political voice and power
  • Use of scarce water resources, watershed management
  • Urban growth management and rural lands, land use priorities
  • Food versus energy
  • Wildlife, forest, natural resource management
  • Public recreation in rural areas
  • Tax policies, economic structures
  1. Approaches you can take to covering rural-urban conflict 

Approaches that media take to covering rural-urban conflict vary considerably – by country and region, by media institution and by reporter.

Objective reporting. Journalism models in democratic societies often strive for objective, impartial reporting, with emphasis on editorial balance.  This approach positions the reporter somewhat as the referee of a boxing match, describing the action without trying to influence the outcome. It helps guide public decisions in democratic societies by enlightening audiences about the diverse viewpoints that surround divisive issues. From the commercial standpoint, it also helps media avoid alienating subscribers and advertisers.

“Because of the great responsibility associated with reporting the news, there is some controversy as to how reporters, editors and others associated with the process should treat stories in conflict,” says Phil Barker in “Large scale communication.” Objectivity and lack of bias are impossible, he notes, because every reporter has opinions and perspectives that do not disappear while he or she is reporting a story.  In addition, the mere presence of reporters may alter the behavior of parties to conflict.  And parties to the conflict often try to use the media to their own advantage. Read more at:
conflict-frontiers.beyondintractability.org/essay
> Use the site “Search” system, entering the term “large scale communication”

How can reporters that use this objective journalism model add rigor and value to their coverage of rural-urban conflict?

Can they do more than call attention to the conflict, describe it and shed light on some of the conflicting viewpoints and implications involved?

Other journalism models suggest that non-aligned, impartial media can (in terms of the boxing analogy) do more than let the fighting rage on to whatever conclusion it takes. For example, a “third party” framework by William Ury identifies 10 special ways in which media can cover conflicts, beyond simply describing them.  Read more at:  www.beyondintractability.org/essay/Thirdsiders

Helping prevent conflicts – by serving as provider, teacher and bridge builder Helping resolve conflicts – by serving as mediator, arbiter, equalizer and healer
Helping contain conflicts – by serving as witness, referee and peacekeeper

The Center for War, Peace and the News Media at New York University is among those working to identify problem-solving roles that media can play in conflict situations.  Director Robert Karl Manoff has identified two dozen potential and existing media-based initiatives.

Assume, for example, that farmland owners of a community are reacting negatively to a proposed industry siting.  Here are some sample initiatives a local reporter might take, beyond merely describing the conflict as it plays out:

  • Provide early warning of the impending conflict.
  • Relay negotiating signals between parties that have no formal communication or require another way to signal.
  • Establish the transparency of one conflict party to another.
  • Identify the underlying interests of each party for the other.
  • Prevent the circulation of incendiary rumors and counteract them when they surface.
  • Frame the issues involved in conflict in such a way that they become more susceptible to management.
  • Identify resources that may be available to help disputing parties resolve conflicts, or mobilize outside assistance for doing so.

You can read more about these and other approaches identified by Manoff. Read more at: www.usip.org/virtualdiplomacy/publications/papers/manoff.html

Also, several related models of media coverage offer perspectives and techniques that reporters for non-aligned media may find helpful for strengthening coverage of rural-urban conflict situations. They include, for example:

Public journalism

“Seeks to explore issues affecting a community and stay with those issues long enough to give the community enough information to understand the conflict and get involved.”  Read more at:
conflict-frontiers.beyondintractability.org/essay
> Use the site “Search” system, entering the term “mass media”

Civic journalism

“An effort to reach out to the public more aggressively in the reporting process, to listen to how citizens frame their problems and what citizens see as solutions to those problems…and then to use that information to enrich news stories.” We interpret “citizens” here as including those who represent rural as well as urban interests. Read more at:
democracyplace.soundprint.org/civicjdf.html

Development journalism

In the context of agricultural and rural development issues, development journalism “documents conditions within a country so the larger world can understand them.”  It seeks to analyze and share development-related information as well as encourage problem-solving efforts, without becoming aligned with any perspective or party to those efforts. Read more at:
www.wisegeek.com/what-is-development-journalism.htm

  1. Tools you can use in covering rural-urban conflict 

Here are some tools you can use to strengthen your reporting in these challenging conflict situations.

  1. Six starter questions to consider.  These questions, compiled by Cate Malek and reported through the Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, help you think about what is going on, what underlying causes are involved, how parties to the conflict are affected and where you will get your facts. Read more at:
    www.beyondintractability.org
    > Use the site “Search” system, entering the term “journalism”
  2. Skills you can use in analyzing conflicts.  This framework was compiled by Melissa Burmann from the Conflict Management Group, Harvard University.  Used in journalist workshops in South Africa and elsewhere, the framework includes more than 40 questions that can help you analyze conflict situations. Review it at: ccrweb.ccr.uct.ac.za/archive/two/7_4/index74.html
  3. How to find facts in complex conflict situations. In this report, “The role of information in disputes,” author Norman Schultz describes the value of good information, types to seek and ideas for gathering what you need. Review it at: www.beyondintractability.org/essay/fact-finding
  1. Covering rural-urban inequities and imbalances
  2. What kinds tend to exist?

What are we talking about, in terms of rural-urban inequities and imbalances that you may find important to cover?  Here are some that have commanded attention in countries throughout the world.  You may wish to consider them.  They often apply at local, area, national or international levels. And we feel sure you can identify others.

Sample topics for rural-urban analysis:

  • Digital divide/information equity/”media rich – media poor”
  • Living standards
  • Income distribution
  • Poverty – conditions, levels, causes, effects
  • Access to energy resources and services
  • Access to roads and transportation systems and services
  • Business environment – profitability, sustainability, opportunities
  • Corruption at the rural-urban interface
  • Indigenous knowledge and intellectual property – issues, protection, policies
  • Barriers to job creation
  • Levels and kinds of civic engagement and citizen participation
  • Community development – comparative progress, opportunities
  • Effects of international trade policies
  • Literacy levels and challenges
  • Language-related issues
  • Education needs and opportunities
  • Nature and effects of government education policies
  • Occupational aspirations of youth
  • Access to health services and professionals to provide them
  • Migration trends, effects, policies
  • Ethnic diversity
  • Gender diversity
  • Female labor force participation and access to information
  • E-commerce – adoption levels, kinds of uses
  • Access to professional telework opportunities
  • Environmental knowledge, attitudes and actions
  • Environmental degradation; depletion of natural resources; pollution
  • Water – supplies, needs, uses and challenges
  • Climate change – comparative effects and impacts
  • Globalization – forms, comparative effects
  • Impacts of privatization
  • Credit – needs, access, issues
  • International trade policies (e.g., food) – comparative effects, issues
  • Images – how rural and urban residents perceive each other
  • Media coverage of rural and urban matters – amount, accuracy
  • Use and preservation of indigenous media
  • Residents’ notions of hope, freedom of association, security, opportunity
  1. How do you approach them?

Rural-urban inequities and imbalances may be less visible than rural-urban conflicts. They call for alert journalists with sharp eyes.  Also, they require more fact-finding and digging than you need to use in writing informative features or other coverage that helps fill rural-urban knowledge gaps. At the same time, they may be extremely important and valuable.

Some of the tools you use for covering rural-urban conflicts (noted above) may help you cover rural-urban inequities and imbalances.  Also, guidelines for investigative reporting can serve you well.  Here, for example, are sample investigative reporting resources for you to consider:

  1. Visit web sites of about 50 organizations throughout the world that hold active interest in investigative journalism. They are identified on the Global Investigative Journalism web site at: www.globalinvestigativejournalism.org/resources/organizations.html
  2. Visit the Resource Center of Investigative Reporters and Editors for searching tips and other resources at: www.ire.org/resourcecenter/tipsheets.php
  3. “Investigative reporting: Getting the story, Part 1”  This PowerPoint    presentation briefly describes how to find story ideas, prepare to write, interview and create a road map for the story. Review it at www.ijnet.org/ijnet/training_materials/
    > Use the Section Search system, entering the term “investigative reporting:     getting the story”
  4. “From statistics on abandoned babies to tenders that topple governments.” Review investigative stories, lectures and presentations at the 2008 Pan-African Investigative Journalism Summit of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR).  Posted at:
    www.fairreporters.org/portal/fairnew/docs/FAIR_Summit_2008_proof5.pdf

What other skills and approaches can media reporters take in covering rural-urban relations? 

Can you provide examples of excellent rural-urban media coverage? 

Can you provide examples of poor rural-urban media coverage? 

Please send them to the authors at evansj(at)illinois.edu and owen(at)uoguelph.ca

Thank you and best wishes in your rural-urban reporting.

_____________________________________________________________

This feature is provided through a professional development partnership of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) and the Agricultural Communications Documentation Center (ACDC) of the University of Illinois.

June 2009