Rensselaerville, New York
It should be difficult to take acorn squash seriously this week. The presidential debates and various state referendums, especially California Proposition 37 which demands labeling of genetically modified food, make thoughts of dinner seem frivolous. Serious citizens should be conserving every moment, tossing together quick meals, dedicating every non-working, non-sleeping hour to reading polls and studies and news stories.
I’m looking at a particularly fulsome acorn squash from my friend Nancy’s garden.
I’m thinking about the ground pork from Old Field Farm that sits in the refrigerator. I am thinking about the bacon that a neighbor made last week, about the bunches of sage and rosemary that another neighbor delivered, about the onions with parchment skins worthy of the Declaration of Independence on my table. There is a storm brewing outside. I am thinking about the black walnuts that fall to the ground this time of the year in Upstate New York and Ray, the now deceased neighbor who used to gather them in a burlap bag, place the bag under the front tires of his pickup truck and carefully shift from first to reverse in order to crack the shells.
I am also thinking about the studies and stories I’ve devoured this election season and about advocacy journalism.
The part of me who came of age in “old journalism,” which was also the hay day of “new journalism,” is uneasy co-joining the two words. Advocacy is based on opinion. Journalism is supposed to be objective.
In fact, advocacy lives deep in the heart of journalism. It is the burn to reveal the hidden. To give voice to the disenfranchised, clarity to the befuddled, courage to the frightened and manipulated. To present a wider world to people like Ray, the vehicular walnut-cracker, who lived over eighty years in the same 12 mile square of Albany county and drove 30 miles to its namesake “city” only three times, for the birth of each of his two daughters and, finally, to die.
The practice of traditional journalism is like salt in cooking: it marshals these impulses and squares them with facts.
When the words “advocacy” and “journalism” are joined it usually means that evidence from research and reporting is filtered through a point of view. Fox News does it. The New Republic does it. Food writers do it.
Even if merely cheerleading a lip smacking recipe, a food writers taste (and “take”) is intrinsic to the stories she writes. As food gains enough social steam to spawn slogans such as “Vote With Your Fork,” the “take” — musings on the political, economic and moral implications of what’s on the plate — has increased. The opportunity to advocate social change is large, the impulse to do so, born either of dreams of a better world or the desire to belong to the Food Club, is strong.
The skill required to craft an effective advocacy story, however, is also significant. Simple opinion, an editorial for a newspaper or broadcast commentary, tends to be short, a synthesis of well-known information put through the spin-cycle of the writer’s point of view. Advocacy journalism, on the other hand, tends toward longer, feature pieces that rely on original reporting and create an argument based on this research.
At their best, advocacy pieces are transparent chronicles of both the writer’s enterprise and the evolution of her point of view. At their worst, advocacy journalism is propaganda.
Complicated, emotionally charged issues such as California’s Proposition 37 are particularly vulnerable to being reduced to cant. Dwarfed by competing reports from scientists, economists, industry advocates and passionate objectors, mere mortals are painfully aware of the limits of their own knowledge, their own ability to weigh and measure complicated information and the limits of their time to do so. Simple solutions are a relief.
The writer seeking to advocate, in this case, for or against GMO’s, is faced with the challenge of distilling information with a clear eye and a fair-minded spirit. Sadly, few have achieved this. Most of the anti GMO stories I’ve read are recitations of the very well-known.
Deploying the buzzwords of the Holy Church of the High Minded Meal — Local! Organic! Sustainable! Bio Diverse! — the majority of food writers crafted pieces that read like Sunday School literature. At first glance, “Unmasking GMOs (PDF here),” a 22-page effort to look at the science and politics around the issue seemed like a meaty antidote to this choir.
Stephen Lanzalotta, who wrote this piece, is a wood-fired oven baker in Maine, author of The Diet Code and PIatto Per Tutti Nutritional Cooking Classes, and is passionately opposed to GMOs. An indefatigable researcher, he pulled together a lot of resources that would benefit anyone interested in thinking responsibly and originally about genetic engineering of food.
Lanzalotta also does a good job describing the dark side of industry-supported research and political agenda — a trend that some smart food writer should be monitoring study-by-study, health-claim by health-claim. Ultimately, however, he was unable to bring a baker’s precision to presenting his findings.
He couldn’t build the simple structure that best communicates complicated issues. Instead, the piece weaves from the politics of decision making, to genetically engineered foods, to fertilizer and the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning in corporate science. It lurches around cancer cures, considers the nature of belief and thinking, returns to GMO’s, veers off to e-coli, ammonia-washed beef and poultry litter, then revisits Aristotle and somehow ends up lecturing a nation of coach potatoes about lack of personal responsibility.
Maybe there’s a reason I’m so fondly regarding the acorn squash on my table. Its real and it is within my grasp. Unlike the language in Unmasking the GMO Issue, a piece in which “corporate puppets” and “industry stooges,” and “schizophrenic whirling dervish maelstrom [sic],” abound, the squash is simple, coherent and calm.
Language that sets up “Us” and “Them,” limits a discussion to the already-convinced. Playing loose with fact by merging deaths caused by drinking water imbued with dangerous agricultural run-off with suicides committed by small farmers leveled by debt to create a single “suicide” statistic, reduces the work to what its writer decries in pro-GMO literature: “blustery, emotive blasts.”
That’s the rub of advocacy journalism. The passion that fuels the genre can, if not carefully governed, defeat its purpose. Awareness of the basic precepts of impartiality and decades of practice were, for instance, needed to craft the masterly piece, Vote For The Dinner Party, that Michael Pollan recently published in the New York Times Magazine.
Using the upcoming California Proposition 37 to frame the question about whether food will enter politics in the coming election, Mr. Pollan outed his own bias in the second sentence and went on to create an elegant portrait of the cultural, economic and political context of GMO’s. Were the structure of his piece a building, it would be Federalist, spare and purpose-driven, no distracting curlicues, not a syllable of wasted space. His word choice is equally plain and along with a brisk-walk-in-the-woods cadence and an ambience of gee-I-wonder-what-will-happen, Mr. Pollan creates a powerful piece of advocacy journalism, one that respects his readers’ hearts, minds — and time.
Having spent a formative decade at the Times, I favor this approach and admire the discipline required to parse facts — as well as one’s own bias — in order to inform and activate readers. Impartiality may be impossible, but restraint can be learned.
Mark Foster quotes seven practices for advocacy journalism that Sue Careless, a journalist in Toronto who was arrested in 1999 for suspected involvement in a pro-life demonstration, delivered in an address in 2000.
Think of these principles as a governor, as salt, as necessary guard rails on the slippery slope between advocacy and propaganda.
- Acknowledge your perspective up front.
- Be truthful, accurate, and credible. Don’t spread propaganda, don’t take quotes or facts out of context, “don’t fabricate or falsify”, and “don’t fudge or suppress vital facts or present half-truths.”
- Don’t give your opponents equal time, but don’t ignore them, either.
- Explore arguments that challenge your perspective, and report embarrassing facts that support the opposition. Ask critical questions of people who agree with you.
- Avoid slogans, ranting, and polemics. Instead, “articulate complex issues clearly and carefully.”
- Be fair and thorough.
- Make use of neutral sources to establish facts.
If you are just beginning to try to change the world with your words, it’s also useful to have an editor, a teacher, or a trusted peer group to protect you from yourself. In addition to the daunting task of remaining neutral, all writers, but especially those seeking to establish themselves, want to belong. Membership in the Holy Church of the High Minded Meal is becoming as de rigueur to food writers as membership in the fraternal order of Freemasons once was to French chefs seeking Michelin stars.
An ever expanding world view and the ability to countenance dissenting opinion are not yet among the many benefits of membership in the fledgling fellowship of the High Minded Meal. Go wide. Think past the table. Then return to it. The squash sitting on it may look different.
The more I consider the future of my specimen – ground pork? herbs? onions ? black walnuts? —the more I think about how long it will take to split and season and stuff the squash, to roast it until it is soft and accessible to my very eager spoon, the different-er it looks to me.