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The death of the 'follow-up question'

Ag interview
Working for a general farm organization, we get a lot of media requests from reporters around the state and country who are often under extreme deadline pressure.  Having been in broadcast news for 25 years, I understand what they need, and our team works hard to accommodate them.  But, I’m also seeing that the business has changed so much; I feel like I should hold a ‘wake’ for tools of the trade that are central to the profession I used to know; let’s bow our heads for the death of the Follow-Up Question.

The Follow-Up Question was central to the success of many journalism greats, including the late, great White House reporter, Helen Thomas (whom I interviewed many years ago).  Thomas told me that a great reporter is only as good as her questions and her curiosity to always learn more.  I took her advice to heart.

If the ‘Follow-Up Question’ is dead, then the curiosity to learn the whole story can’t be far behind.  I understand that today’s reporters are faced with new challenges, competing with social media ‘citizen journalists’ to be the first to break news. But, that’s even more of a reason to take a stand for the whole story.

We’ve all been guilty at one point, believing charismatic people in the spotlight, even if we’ve never met them.  It’s backfired for millions who believed Jenny McCarthy's views on childhood vaccinations or Dr. Oz’s pitches for 'instant weight loss' supplements.  Consumers were ‘duped’ not only because they mistook popularity for credibility; reporters did, too.

In the last 10 years working at Iowa Farm Bureau, I know reporters aren’t shying away from asking farmers or us the tough questions, and that’s okay; farming innovation and practices have changed so much and so few folks farm these days, they need those questions answered. But, it seems some of our critics aren’t always held to the same standards.

I know Bill Stowe, the general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, has always had a way with a sound bite; I interviewed him dozens of times when he was head of Des Moines’ snow removal department.   But, even if reporters have grown as comfortable with him as the old armchair in their living room, it doesn’t mean their story is done.  Telling reporters, “Science proves weather, and other natural conditions do not create excessive nitrate concentrations,” should be an opportunity for a Follow-Up Question: ‘What science?’

Indeed, there is science which shows weather’s impact on water quality, and there are record amounts of conservation practices being added every year.  Des Moines Water Works’ own website has several graphs that show an overall decline in nitrates.  Curious, as are the quick-trigger-finger claims that the Nutrient Reduction Strategy isn’t working.  A Follow-Up Question to experts who actually work with farmers will tell you while progress is happening and needs to continue, reaching targets will take more than the 18 months the Nutrient Reduction Strategy has been in effect.

There are other stories that continue to be pushed onto the media and covered, without hesitation or even basic Follow-Up Questions, which could speak to the credibility or motives of those pointing the fingers at farmers.  There are many families out there, leading the way, trying new things, bringing the next generation back on the farm, keeping rural Iowa sustainable.  In the New Year, let’s resolve to all doing our part to get their story told.  I know that’s our motivation.  What’s yours?  Hey, now there’s a  Follow-Up Question for you!

By Laurie Johns. Laurie is Iowa Farm Bureau's Public Relations Manager.