Several readers called in about our reference last week to “shovelling hay” into a threshing machine in our front-page cutline. The general consensus was as a farm paper, we should know better. And we do, most of the time.
Of course, you don’t shovel hay into a threshing machine. You pitch in the sheaves. However, to a fledgling reporter who didn’t grow up on a farm (let alone one in the 1920s), the distinction between shovelling, pitching, hay and wheat that hasn’t been threshed yet is somewhat nuanced.
The reality for most of the young reporters entering journalism these days is that very few of them have come from a farm. If we were prone to pointing fingers, we’d be saying, “right back at ya,” because it’s not our fault that the number of farming families in Canada has dropped to less than two per cent of the general population, or that those who remain on the farm are having fewer kids or that the kids who do come from a farm aren’t opting for a career writing about agriculture.
So when we get applications from smart, talented individuals with a background in journalism who are willing to venture out, wade in and come back with a story, we’re inclined to give them a chance — whether or not they come from a farm. We hope you will too. If agriculture’s story is going to be told, it will involve working with people who may not know all the jargon.
We encourage our writers to never assume and if they don’t know, to ask. The same goes for their sources. Folks often complain reporters “always” get it wrong, as if that’s something we enjoy doing. But sometimes, the misunderstanding is in the telling; the source assumes the reporter gets what he or she is trying to say.
In the end, it’s up to the editors — such as moi — to catch the little faux pas like the one we printed last week. I missed that cutline, pure and simple. There’s not much more that can be said about it than that. When we slip up, we can count on our readers to let us know about it, because it’s out there, in print, for all to see. We don’t know this for sure, but we have a hunch mistakes sometimes happen on the farm too. It’s just that no one else sees them.
While we’re ’fessing up, it’s not the first time something made it into print that shouldn’t have. A few weeks ago, another editor, who shall remain nameless, printed a cutline identifying a bunch of large rodents with rat tails as beaver. We heard about that one too.
I once mislabelled a rock picker as a manure spreader. Oops. But my boss said it was OK — a farm kid from the Red River Valley couldn’t be expected to know anything about rock pickers.
By far the worst sin I can remember committing in my editing career technically wasn’t even a mistake. I ran a story (accurately) quoting an individual, and a credible one at that, as suggesting a certain breed of cattle, which again, shall remain nameless except to say it had a European-sounding name, was a little wilder than the rest. My boss returned from holidays just as the fire-breathing dragons — a.k.a. breeders of the said animals — were pushing the switchboard into overload. Maybe he gave the callers the same excuse about me being from the valley.
Which brings me to another point. Even being from a farm these days is no guarantee we’ll get it right every time. It used to be that people on the farm grew crops, livestock, fixed their own machinery and canned their own food.
Everyone in the family knew quite a bit about a lot of things, and even if they weren’t experts, they could certainly talk the language.
Modern agriculture has become highly specialized. There are children growing up on large grain farms these days who have very little involvement with day-to-day operations.
How many grain farmers would know what ked is in sheep? How many hog farmers can distinguish between different types of openers on a seeder? Who, that is not in supply management, can decipher the code around quota policy, particularly in dairy? I dare suggest even skills such as cooking a turkey or canning one’s own vegetables can no longer be assumed either.
Increasingly, we ask our writers to spell out the jargon to ensure all our readers can capture the gist of what is being said. It’s not about “dumbing” things down, it’s about using language to communicate, rather than confuse.
While we continue to try to get it right the first time, in the end what matters is whether we’ve managed to get “the story” in its proper context and tell it in a way that it informs and entertains our readers.
The offending cutline accompanied a story that captured the essence of the old-time threshing day at Dauphin — farmers getting together and keeping their spirits up through what continues to be a difficult harvest. We’d like to think that reflects what the Co-operator is all about.
As always, we appreciate your feedback. Keep it coming.