When science joins journalism, good things happen, as Mike Joy and Stephen Sackur showed. It was a big media science story, that should have been a bigger economic one: how to reconcile dairy’s growth industry with our “100% pure” brand

It’s an august line-up, on this Thursday’s Media 7 science special: Professor Sir Peter Gluckman; Robert, Lord Winston. Me.

The last part of that was a joke. It is true that after the professor and the peer of the realm I join a panel with freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy, to talk, again, about the 100% purity (compared to the rest of the world) fiasco, and this post of mine about Fonterra.

Joy’s “little scuffle with the Prime Minister” was, in its way, the science meets journalism story of the year. He and Stephen Sackur joined forces to make Teflon John look a bit of a twit. Also, said Mr Key, scientists were a bit like lawyers, you could always find another to give another opinion. There we sat, on the panel, pre-filming last Sunday, the scientist and the ex-lawyer, a lovely little twist. Dr Joy’s news on water quality was bad; mine, about Fonterra, was good. Symmetry.

The theme was sustainability, my favourite. All of my favourites, in fact: environment science and the media, sustainable farming and our economy. Can our two big earners, dairying and tourism, co-exist? Can conservationists and farmers talk?

So: lots to talk about. Here’s what I would have said, had it been one of those comfortable typewriter interviews (as in, me interviewing mine).

What you see on tele on Thursday evening may or may not resemble this. Much of what I was asked and all of what I said is a blank, though I do recall some unnecessary blather about Fred Pearce. To put it in short simple terms: this is not something I do. It was either very brave, or very very stupid.

1.
First up (I remember this one) was whether my story shows that if you make enough noise, something will eventually be done about it.

The question should perhaps be why, Fonterra aside, so little is still getting done, in spite of the noise.

Joy got air time when, via Sackur, he confronted the PM, and exposed his blarney. It was, in itself, news that a journalist had been unimpressed by the PM's boyish smile. There was conflict, and two sides to the story; we know media like to put both sides even when, as on climate change, there really aren’t.

It shouldn’t take a Stephen Sackur or Fred Pearce. The information is all there. Sackur had an op-ed from the New Zealand Herald, that Mike had written in April; Pearce, in a greenwash column (here I go again), exposing false environmental claims, said we were giving the world two fingers at Kyoto. Those stories were there to be written. Perhaps it shows that still, we see ourselves through overseas eyes; we do not see ourselves at all, until Mother England says. It’s a shameful lack of confidence, or something, among our own journalists.

Occam’s razor might give a different reason, about being slack or under-resourced. But I think it goes deeper. Kiwis cling to two articles of faith: we look quite empty and quite clean; we grow food for the world better than anyone else in the world. For a journalist to look past and challenge those assumptions, including his or her own, is tough, nigh impossible without hard facts.

I could, I think, count on my thumbs the local journalists giving environment science sustained attention, and understanding that each story is not just a biodiversity story, or a freshwater story, or climate change, etcetera etcetera, but a global story, about limits; and not just an environmental story, but an economic and social one, too.

2.
Science is getting better at communicating, which journalists need. Among my best posts lately (as in, the ones that I myself like best) are three that owe pretty much everything to a scientist’s big day out. James Hansen has travelled well out of his comfort zone. Mike Joy, too, made a conscious decision to do two things: to advocate, as a scientist, and to do so from the heart, backing passionate beliefs with facts. On the show, he talks about why he can.

3.
Is it harder to talk science when the news is bad, which, environmentally, it is? Well, perhaps. Journalists don’t have a problem communicating bad news of any other kind I can think of. But what interested and excited me about the Fonterra post -- and I was, as Russell will say, the only one to date to tell that story -- is that it was solution-focused. All the answers are not there, but it does offer hope for a way forward, for conservationists and farmers both. I think that it is too soon, to call it a good news story. But it is one with huge potential.

4.
Can we have a growth dairy industry, and simultaneously claim to be 100% pure, clean and green? What does sustainable farming mean?

I do not think raising dairy consumption levels to those of the developed world is a sustainable global aspiration; or that exporting dairy from the bottom of the world is the best way to respond to a future food crisis, rather than local solutions.

But that is what we do. We need to talk less about the growth of the industry, and more about what is the right size. Because some has been good for New Zealand, it does not mean more is better. We need to set some limits, and start debating the costs, on freshwater, biodiversity, landscapes, emissions profile.

5.
It is too often true that farmers and conservationists are at odds: over Resource Management; the right to pollute on farm with disregard for what happens off it; whether the Mackenzie should be green or brown.

Fonterra is doing things that can help them both. Sometimes conservation, profitability and productivity coincide, as when a farmer pours money into fertiliser, half of which runs off down the drain; or when, as Fonterra knows, its whole future rests on our brand. The challenge is not just to feed the world; it is to do it as the world expects. The world expects New Zealand, “the closest scientists will come to life on another planet”, to look after our national treasures.

6.
Am I am optimist? Yes, when I re-read the Fonterra story, and when I wrote it, but also, a realist. It isn’t yet a good news story, because last year, 66% of Waikato dairy farmers were fully compliant with effluent discharge rules. Therefore, 34% were not. In Canterbury, 65% fully compliant means that 35% were not. The rates of “significant non-compliance” were 12% and 9% respectively -- down from a national rate of 15% in the 2008/09 year, and 27% in Waikato the previous year, and yet, still a failure of basic compliance, with rules that do not fully tackle the water quality problem.

Moving from basic compliance to best practice, on sustainability beyond freshwater, is a long way off. Worth asking, too, what Fonterra are focused on sustaining: their market, or the environment? I think they will do what the market demands -- but the science? According to the science, the environment may need something different.

7.
So, to the media again, to finish. I’d like three things done better.

First, tell the truth, by which I mean, just report the science. The story writes itself; the questions are all there.

Second, get out and tell some good farm stories; quit just sticking a microphone under the nose of the nearest Fed Farmers “representative”, who is not representative of the whole range of farmers.

And remember: there’s another side to the cost-benefit ledger, not just the dairy payout.

Comments (8)

by mudfish on August 04, 2011
mudfish

The slow news movement...

An annual newspaper with headlines reflecting the big picture, decadal developments, in-depth long term histories and futures.

State of the environment reports?? Not really attention grabbing outside those already interested and soon overwhelmed by the 24/7 fast news.

Kennedy Graham's introduction of Sustainable Development Indicators into the annual budget might help create some of the stories you're after, if his Bill had a chance of succeeding.

There'd be time in the stories for optimism and pessimism (I vacilate continuously). There'd be realism, action plans and perhaps the odd vision or dream involved.

I look forward to seeing you blurt about Fred Pearce tomorrow.

by Tim Watkin on August 04, 2011
Tim Watkin

Just saw you on telly! Go you. If you other folk didn't see it, Claire was on Media7 tonight, which should have the programme up online before long. Go google.

One of the things raised was why it took Hardtalk and the Guardian to pop NZ's clean green balloon and its associated mythology... Except I don't think it did.

That story has been written in NZ for years. I can remember when I was at the Listener – so at least five years ago – having a Bruce Ansley story about the country's clean green myths on the cover – 10 myths, I think (I just can't find it online). And there have been plenty of others.

The difference, I think, is that when someone overseas says it, it has licence to become news. A Listener cover story? Hey, there's one every week and it's a media competitor and actually people have been saying we're not as clean and green as we think for years – so not news. Someone at the Guardian writes much the story – a non-competitor, someone from outside, some august organ who hasn't written this story before, is onto our secret – hmmm, that's new and punters are always interested in what 'the world' thinks of us, so let's turn it into a story...

You see how it happens. But let's not say it took foreign media to raise the issue. If scientists try to plant that one on media, they're no better than the media they criticise for not bothering to get their facts right about complex scientific issues.

Anyway, don't mean to be grinchy – great job, Claire.

 

 

by mudfish on August 04, 2011
mudfish

Very brave. No blather.

by Claire Browning on August 05, 2011
Claire Browning

Oh: an NZ Listener story by Bruce Ansley, possibly - about 10 myths or something, as you vaguely recall - that you just can't lay your hands on right now - from at least 5 years ago?

I'm teasing you, Tim. Point taken. Mine I think was not so much that the story's not ever been written, at all - course it has, Rebecca Macfie is another who did a great Listener cover about the price of milk much more recently, and Matthew Littlewood's broken story after story about the Mackenzie down at the Timaru Herald - as about the lack of weight given to it. That is, relative to that given to the economy (GDP, growth, exchange rate, dairy payout, employment - these we never tire of), and politics - and relative to its actual importance, as arguably the number one economic story, not just a wee environmental frolic about eels and such. And our whole existential story, if you put it into perspective as part of the bigger picture.

The difference, I think, is that when someone overseas says it, it has licence to become news. A Listener cover story? Hey, there's one every week and it's a media competitor and actually people have been saying we're not as clean and green as we think for years – so not news. Someone at the Guardian writes much the story – a non-competitor, someone from outside, some august organ who hasn't written this story before, is onto our secret – hmmm, that's new and punters are always interested in what 'the world' thinks of us, so let's turn it into a story...

Yep. Also, it's a snap to report, and a scrap, which we jolly like. I said in the post, I'd reframe the question: the real news is why nothing keeps getting done, when people have been saying it for years. Suggests there isn't enough noise? Takes journalists to amplify it, and science to back the advocates up.

I agree with your definition of newsworthiness, as a factual thing - ie, what actually drives it. I guess I'm wishing it would be different - the stuff that actually matters, boring or not, repetitive if necessary.

Mudfish - all kinds of terror, believe me. So thanks. Very kind.

by Frank Macskasy on August 07, 2011
Frank Macskasy

We watched the Media7 special as well. Well done, Claire.

It was a fascinating panel. The sort of stuff that the rest of the media has long-since abandoned in favour of cute penguins; disaster "porn"; and political sound-bites. As you pointed out;

I agree with your definition of newsworthiness, as a factual thing - ie, what actually drives it. I guess I'm wishing it would be different - the stuff that actually matters, boring or not, repetitive if necessary.

 

 

by Judy Martin on August 08, 2011
Judy Martin

Finally watched this online after managing to miss every single viewing and repeat. You and Mike made a complimentary and articulate pair, and between you managed to make almost all those points above. Thank you for being brave (next stop the Panel?...)

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