I wanted to share #futurefoodwriting panelist and veteran journalist Wilson Dizard III‘s thoughts about the state of food writing. Dizard is author of our “Quelling Quitchen Qualamities” column. It should serve as food for thought for your questions at tomorrow’s Twitter chat.
Disclosure of Financial Backing – Conflicts of Interest
I think that, somewhere there has to be disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.
Here in D.C. we are in a bit of a special environment because we are beset by PR flacks from all over the world who would just love to get press passes and represent the house organs (magazines) of their trade associations as bona fide media outlets.
With all the money sloshing back and forth over issues like health care reform, etc., the only way to keep those vile flacks in check is to draw a bright line: members of the Periodical Press Gallery (the basic D.C. press pass) are required to receive all of their income only from bona fide news organizations rather than lobbies or trade associations.
So, I do understand that reporters elsewhere do have less rigid prohibitions on accepting baksheesh from the industries they cover.
So: if those people can’t live without that money…then…at the very least, they should disclose those financial links.
Because otherwise, how would you know if Monsanto wasn’t paying your editor’s mortgage, if you were a food writer?
Especially in the Slow Food field, I would think that disclosure, at the very least, is a step in the right direction.
That’s available now, to reporters who join organizations like the SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists).
The Place of PR in Food Writing and Ethical Journalism
Ever since the beginning of commercial public relations by food companies, those companies have used recipes to promote use of their own products as ingredients.
So: by this means, countless recipes entered the global hivemind of food knowledge, uncopyrighted.
To some degree, this was a good development, insofar as packaged food is and was healthful.
But: insofar as manufacturer-sponsored cookbooks and recipes infiltrated high school and university home economics programs in the 1940s, 1950s and later (and they are coming back again, sometimes under a different moniker), they promoted practices and consumption not wholly in the consumers’ interests.
For example: the Chicago meatpacking industry relentlessly promoted its effectiveness in “using everything but the squeal” as it promoted canned pork products and lard. But: abuses in that industry prompted the Pure Food and Drug Act.
After that law was passed (largely because of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle and similar exposes by muckrakers), the food and pharmaceutical attorneys started working steadily and successfully to tame the FDA.
One of the great meatpacking industry successes, politically, was to shift regulation of slaughterhouses to the Agriculture Department. Abattoirs in the U.S. today are, in many cases, absolutely disgusting. Poor slaughterhouse regulation actually is responsible for multiple consumer deaths annually, because of the spread of pathogens like salmonella, etc, through those filthy slaughterhouses. Meanwhile, working conditions are so horrible that many of them have greater than 100 percent employee turnover annually — even when they rely on labor contractors to provide illegal immigrants as their labor force.
The decline, if not the actual suppression, of food safety, health and cooking education in the U.S. at the hands of budget-cutters in state legislatures has left food education in the hands of the supermarket and packaged food industries. So: would you trust Wal-Mart to teach your kids how to eat? The mind recoils, and the gorge rises.
If the Slow Food movement, and the writers who promote it, can pick some targets of opportunity among the unhealthy practices promoted by the packaged food industries, then they’ll gain my respect. What if they targeted the soft drink vending machines in schools?
I can’t tell you how revolted I am by all the propaganda about child obesity, when it focuses on minority and low-income populations. It’s no comfort at all that that openly racist “blame the victim” ideology goes hand in hand with the deadly neuroses promoted by the fashion industy, namely, anorexia, bulimia, and other disorders associated with body image problems, like cutting.
Socially responsible education about food is too important to be left to the Walton family. Kraft and Altria will have America’s kids gobbling transfats while smoking Kools and drinking God knows what if it feeds their profit numbers.
Could these food writers agree to hammer out a manifesto for ethics in food writing? Or a pro bono approach to home economics so that there’s some alternative to Barbie’s Dream Kitchen in American homes?
As far as the funding from sponsors: at the end of the day, the key is disclosure.
The goal is, quite simply, just to not try to trick the readers. Which of course, the PR types are all about: hijacking a food writer’s credibility to flog their pink slime, or other product.