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Webinar on family farmers of New Jersey focuses on the role of journalists in the intersectional coverage of agriculture

By Rishi Shah
News Editor

The complexity of agriculture has traditionally been overlooked by reporters who cover it, leading to a failure to address the intersectionality of the subject. 

In a live webinar hosted by senior journalism and professional writing major Lana Leonard on April 16, four panelists discussed this topic in an effort to reflect on the role of journalists in race, gender and news framework as it relates to agriculture. 

The panelists included Dr. Paul D’Angelo, a communications professor at the College who is known for his work with news framing analysis research; Carena Miles, a Black, queer farmer and educator with the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC), an organization dedicated to addressing climate change and working towards climate justice solutions; Christina Heimann, a farm-to-school project manager at Isles farm in Trenton, New Jersey who works with teachers and community members to develop nutritional wellness initiatives and Dr. Walter Greason, an associate professor at Monmouth University and Chair of the Department of Educational Counseling and Leadership at the university. Greason’s focus is on race inequity, economic globalization and agriculture. 

The panelists included Dr. Paul D’Angelo of the College, Carena Miles, Christina Heimann and Dr. Walter Greason of Monmouth University (Photo courtesy of Lana Leonard).

The event started with a discussion of farm relief legislation that has been instituted as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Leonard, $4 billion of the $23 billion provided to farmers is set aside for Black farmers and others subjected to long-lasting racial oppression. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, for instance, has introduced several racial justice bills that would benefit Black farmers. 

The first question posed by Greason asked how these provisions translate to visible change, especially when the former administration of Donald Trump limited access to loans for Black farmers during the pandemic. Greason responded by emphasizing the importance of supporting local farmers with state legislation, noting that it allows for “a sense of human dignity that should not be understated or unappreciated.” 

Greason also explained how the role of real estate speculators in buying up land and selling it off at exorbitant rates led to a “scale of economic investment in favor of real estate development [that] was just so massive that even the farm owners were unprepared for the change in marketplace, let alone the farmworkers.” Farmworkers today struggle to retain their land and are “wiped off the map,” according to Greason. 

When he was later asked about his thoughts on President Biden’s Covid-19 federal rescue plan, which included $5 billion in relief for Black farmers, Greason claimed that he found it to be “an essential step in rebuilding the American economy over the next few years. A similar initiative that empowers local residents in New Jersey’s lowest-income communities would spark massive economic growth for the decade ahead.” 

Leonard then asked Miles why and how so many farmers of color lost their farms over the course of the twentieth century. Miles, the great-granddaughter of a Black sharecropper, explained how financial crises and predatory loans led Black farmers to lose access to their farms and homes that were attached to the land, too. 

In response to a question about the impact of stakeholders in journalism and issue framing, D’Angelo offered his input on “the issue of how issues are brought to bear by stakeholders.” 

Reading off a prepared slideshow, D’Angelo explained six axioms of issue framing: framing an issue entails telling a story about people and events, issue frames consist of the three elements of facts, consideration and values, stakeholders participate in a frame battle within a competitive issue culture, a frame battle among stakeholders takes place on three mediated platforms (highly controlled, moderately controlled and low controlled), a successful issue framing strategy requires a coordinated effort to reach and persuade other stakeholders and audiences across all three platforms and the media present special challenges to stakeholders’ issue framing strategies. 

He recommends that information gatekeepers like journalists manage conflict responsibly by amplifying stakeholder dialogue instead of stakeholder strategizing, refraining from reporting issue via false balance (frames sometimes are built on invalid or disconfirmed facts or considerations) and listening for the language of humans rights, fairness and equity in coverage of farming issues. 

D’Angelo later added that “by listening for particular stakeholder frames that blend viewpoints with fairness, equity and even utility… journalists shape how audiences think about farming and coax along policies that could make conditions better for farmers.” 

After this discussion on issue framing, Heimann described her work overseeing the farm-to-school project at Isles, an organization that supports around 70 community gardens in Trenton. She explained how the gardens in schools help students translate lessons learned in the classroom to a practical application of what they learn about. 

Part of her work involves advocating for healthier meals in school lunches. According to Heimann, seeing plants in the garden itself allows students to become familiar with healthy meals when they see it in their school lunches, resulting in less food being wasted. She also noted how there were only two grocery stores in the city of 84,000 residents, resulting in lower access to healthy food options; one of the goals of the community gardens is to increase access to such options. 

The event then transitioned into a discussion of intersectionality, oppression and privilege. Miles described farming as an act of resistance that allows people to take “power away from these larger systems and structures” and put it into their own hands, allowing them to be independent of these institutions that may not be able to serve their needs adequately.

The event, hosted by senior journalism and professional writing major Lana Leonard, covered farm relief legislation, the role of journalists in issue framing, community gardens and the intersectionality of agriculture among other topics (Rishi Shah / News Editor). 

Leonard noted the importance of addressing this intersectionality, saying “language, gender, race and class reveal oppressions and privileges to us or a lens of intersectionality I think is really important for journalists when covering agricultural news stories. When journalists can better understand the complex relationships in gender, race and class they can better see how frames are written and arranged in the corporate world of media.” 

Kim Pearson, associate professor of journalism and professional writing, English, interactive multimedia and more at the College, explained how journalists today are pressured to avoid large, systemic issues when writing about issues like agriculture. The decimation in newsrooms has also resulted in general assignment writers being forced to cover nuanced topics like farming without a proper understanding of what they are reporting on. 

Greason continued with an explanation of the media’s impact on journalism. He cited his expertise in the economics of media distribution, or who pays for advertising, to demonstrate the reliance of Midwestern and Western journalists, editors and publishers on an “advertising base that drives a lot of that content and how it’s produced.” 

He also advised people to be aware of the advertisers present in the media they consume, as they are responsible for shaping what questions are asked and what is considered acceptable to publish as stakeholders. 

D’Angelo concluded the event by noting how even if one were to cover the work of Heimann or Miles in farming and agriculture, it would take the shape of a human interest story and likely neglect the complex issues at play. As Heimann put it, “the issue is so complex, and to really sum it up, it’s just so many different layers and so many moving parts, it’s a real challenge.” 

When asked what they thought was the most important takeaway from the webinar, Leonard pointed to the fact that “collaboration, community and communication matter.”

“Becoming a part of different lived experiences, professions and expressions help a journalist understand that objectivity is a process rather than something we become,” they said, crediting D’Angelo for teaching them this particular point. 

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