My Generation

What Makes a Good Farmer Interview?

Here are a few things to consider when the non-ag media calls you up and wants to talk ag.

Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Today is a look at how to handle calls from non-ag media. In the second part, we'll look at what to do when one of us from the agricultural media calls.

Back in the very early days of my career and marriage, John and I attended the Illinois Farm Bureau young farmers conference, held in Peoria that year. One of the local TV stations showed up – it being a slow Saturday night in Peoria and all – and I wound up getting interviewed on camera. I can't remember what it was about, really. But I remember when it aired…very clearly. Because when they asked me what it was like to farm with family, and I gave a very thorough magazine-like answer about how we all work together and work hard together to run the farm business and sometimes we don't get along because everyone has different ideas but we always remember we're family first and blah blah blah. Blah.

Related: Is ag too political with consumers?

Well. You can just imagine how they sliced and diced that piece of tape, and the only thing that made it on the air was the part about how we don't get along. And may I just say: no one on either end of this gravel road was happy about that. Devastation ensued. My only consolation was that it was Saturday night and who watches the 10 o'clock news on Saturday anyway? Right? Please?

At any rate, my mistake was obvious: I answered as though he were a magazine reporter with lots of space for a nuanced story, when, in fact, he was a TV reporter with 30 seconds and no clear understanding of nuance. Nor family dynamics.

Fast forward a few years and the New York Times called to talk to me about MF Global. That went remarkably better (whew) but it confirmed my preference to be on the asking end of the questions.

So from that very early, very bad experience with a TV interview that impacted our farm, I've had great compassion for the farmer who opens up his or her home and farm to me to do a story. That takes guts. And trust. And it's absolutely necessary to the story of agriculture these days.

Mark Lambert is an old friend from his days at the Illinois Corn Growers, and today he works in communications for the National Corn Growers Association. Before all of that, he was an actual reporter for an actual newspaper, which is to say, he has some good advice for when a non-ag reporter calls.

"The first two things you should always ask are: What do you want to know (do you have a specific angle on the story) and what's your deadline?" Mark says.

After that, if you decide to do the interview, he says you should develop no more than three key messages, stick to those messages, and answer them in focused, small sound bites, "Because long-form media is nearly non-existent anymore."

(Alex, I'll take "Information I Needed 15 Years Ago" for $500, please.)

Mark continues, blessedly: "If the media pushes a topic or direction you are uncomfortable with, it's ok to say you don't have the answer or depth of knowledge to respond. Then offer to facilitate a response or another contact with the appropriate expertise."

That feels like solid information to me. It's ok to say, "I don't know." Chances are, if you try to BS your way through an answer, the reporter will either know it and you'll lose credibility, or they won't and they'll actually print it – and that may be worse.

Related: What Farmers Want From Consumers

And when the interview is done? You have no rights, really. In ag media, we will often let you see a copy of the story before it runs. I do that, standard, especially if it's a story about technology or equipment and I want to be sure I got what you said exactly right. Because it's not like we're breaking Watergate here or something, with your field cultivator story.

With the non-ag media, you can request a copy of your quotes before the story is printed, but they don't have to provide them. It doesn't hurt to ask, but know that in today's never-ending digital news cycle, the deadlines keep rolling in and they may not have time.

So the lesson here: Know who you're talking to. Don't be like me.

Check What makes a good farmer interview, part two for timeless advice from my fellow farm editors, who've all been interviewing farmers for a long, long time!

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