When I read an article in a newspaper or a magazine, the first thing I do is take a look at the byline. I wonder if I’ve read the writer’s work before. If there’s a bio, I look to see if they’ve come to the issue with an obvious agenda that’s going to put a slant in the article.
Writers are people too, and they all have an agenda. My agenda is long: I’m trying to do well at my job by putting together a publication you’ll enjoy — something that’s entertaining, but also includes information that will help you make more money on your farm. I try to make sure everyone at Grainews is writing the truth, even if that may sometimes irritate our advertisers. And, I try my best not to have a bias that influences my writing. Because my husband is a seed grower, I make a point of not promoting varieties he sells. Last month, Grainews field editor Lee Hart covered a conference in Calgary. When I realized my cousin was on one of the conference panels, I did not ask Lee to specifically cover that talk (though I really wanted to), because I don’t want readers to think my relatives get more pages in Grainews than anyone else.
I thought a lot about bias this week as I pulled together our coverage of the seed royalty consultations that are underway. Freelancer Sarah Hoffman has a great understanding of the details and knew how to put her notes together in a way that would make the issues clear to Grainews readers. But — if you read her byline at the bottom, you’ll see that Sarah is also a seed grower. Does that mean her coverage is biased toward solutions that could benefit seed growers?
Well, maybe it does. But it also means that Sarah’s been following this issue for a long time. She’s given it a lot of thought, specifically because it will impact her business. You might argue with her conclusion, but you can’t claim that she doesn’t understand the facts. I decided readers would rather read something from Sarah with a potential bias than something from someone who is new to this topic and doesn’t understand the history.
Knowing that seed royalties are potentially controversial and that some readers might be concerned about Sarah’s bias, I asked Sarah to write a disclaimer at the start of the article where she provides her personal opinions about the consultation. Here’s what she put together. I went as a farmer, seed grower and a person deeply interested in the policies that shape the success of the cropping industry in Western Canada. As a professional writer, I am used to reporting what other people have to say about an issue, but I have given this topic a great deal of thought myself, and, because I am so personally invested, I wanted to share what I think.
There is a lot of bias in the ag industry, or in any industry. But it’s not all bad. When I want to ask a researcher about a new herbicide there are some unbiased, knowledgeable scientists I can call, at governments and universities. But it would be foolish for me to ignore the knowledge of the highly qualified scientists working at the companies that are selling the herbicide. We try to talk to unbiased agronomists whenever we can, but we know there are also many highly skilled, honest agronomists working with for-profit companies who will do their best to give unbiased advice to Grainews readers.
We don’t always run disclaimers at the start of Grainews articles. Lee Hart and Scott Garvey are full-time staff writers with nothing to sell you. When they give you an opinion, they’re telling you what they really think. We also don’t run disclaimers at the start of our columnists’ opinion articles, though we have clear bylines at the bottom. As a retired university professor, Les Henry is as unbiased as they come. However, even Les has a book to sell. You might find he uses his column to make you so interested in how water moves through soil that you want to buy a copy of Henry’s Handbook of Soils and Water (this scheme worked on me).
One of our most popular features in Grainews is Casebook. I love the mystery-solving aspect of this piece, and so do our readers. But if you check the fine print at the bottom, you’ll notice that the Casebook sleuths are always working on a case for a Richardson Pioneer customer. Richardson works with us on these great pieces as a way of sharing knowledge with farmers; the Richardson Pioneer writers are always very careful not to mention their products or services in a way that turns the Casebook story into a biased ad.
Whether you’re reading Grainews or the National Enquirer, read every article carefully, and use your own standards to decide if a writer is telling the whole story. As the editor, my job is to make sure it’s easy for you to see which writers and experts have which biases.
As a reader, it’s your job to let me know if I’m not doing it right. My inbox is open at [email protected].