Food for thought

You are what you eat . . . and do

Food news is serious business. It is time more food editors and writers — and their supervisors — treat it with the respect it deserves.

By Joe Crea

Joe Crea is food editor for The Orange County (CA) Register and his weekly column is carried by Knight-Ridder News Service. He is chairman of the professional development and ethics committee of the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 3 (June 1990), p. 5.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Should food writers be treated differently than other journalists?

“Oh, please!” some colleagues will say with disgust. “Don’t even call them ‘journalists.’ They’re industry flacks and home hacks hired to justify food store ads and restaurant revenues.”

Unfortunately, there are some in my profession who deserve that reputation. For them, life is a banquet sans cover charge.

Not that every feature reporter must pursue his or her topic with the blazing social conscience of Charles Dickens. But it would be nice if more food reporters would cover a story where no snack is involved. Plenty of us do. But at times, some of us seem less reporters than beat cops at the grand opening of a donut shop.

Heaven knows, the temptations are many and delectable. If every freebie offered me were laid end-to-end, I’d be endlessly traveling to exotic ports, own a wine cellar to rival a Rothchild’s, possess every culinary gadget that hits the market and dine well (if not fabulously) virtually seven nights a week.

Anyone who knows how to play the angles can get in on one car or another of the gravy train open to those who carry a culinary byline. And believe me, there’s a boxcar of “opportunities.”

Among the recent pickings: An all-expenses-paid trip to Antigua courtesy of a New York-based PR firm where the chosen food writers would “judge” the area’s cuisine. Or the International Food Media conference where, for a token fee, the media could dine for 3 days in Alexandria, Virginia, one of the nation’s priciest metropolitan areas, while corporate spokespersons fed them the party line. Or the American Lamb Council’s “editors only” recipe contest where the winner in a very narrow field is awarded a full-ride prize to a grand luxe destination.

If we want other journalists to take us seriously, we have to earn respect. A good place to begin is realizing the high cost of the free lunch. As the ethics code of the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association says :”Gifts, favors, free travel or lodging, special treatment or privileges can compromise the integrity and diminish the credibility of food editors and writers, as well as their employers.”

To me, deserving to be treated with respect also means:

  • Either returning gifts sent me by industry reps or giving samples to a charity, then following up with a form letter stating that while we appreciate notification of a new gizmo, we prefer an offer to order and pay for advance product releases.
  • Cover issues and topics with social relevance. Sorry if that sounds lofty. I don’t do it every week. But I do strive to be mindful of such issues no matter how soft the topic by including nutritional, environmental, ethical and/or consumer considerations.

Readers are no longer exclusively interested in rhapsodic reporting about the cut of a doily or ingenuous use of an herb. Today’s consumer is concerned about ecology, animal rights and just how the body will metabolize fake fat. They want to know how to eat more intelligently. For me, ethics means responsibility. That begins with the subjects I tackle.

  • Attending only those conferences and events for which my newspaper will pay.
  • When such a conference is industry subsidized, before registering I first consider the program: Do I really need this experience? Will I seek out and report opposing perspectives? Is the fee a fair representation of the cost of amenities, meals, etc.? Is it implicit in the invitation that I will provide favorable coverage?
  • When considering a feature on a restaurant or type of cuisine, I never accept a free invitation to sample their best. I visit as anonymously as possible, unannounced and on my newspaper’s dollar.

Food news is not all cupcakes and confectioners’ sugar. But for food editors and writers to treat it as the serious business it is, news management must do the same.

Many of us are expected to follow The Smart Set, report on trends au courant, have more than fleeting acquaintance with the cutting edge. Just how do you do that on a beer budget? Do you buy wines and spirits on your own? Rent your own tuxedo each time an event demands?

Management revels in the prestige, or at least the reader/viewer draw (not to mention the advertising revenues) such coverage generates. Yet when it comes to budgeting for the next fiscal year, the sports reporters are off to cover the Super Bowl, but are the folks covering diet and cuisine chalked in for legitimate conferences, urged to tackle significant subjects, given an opportunity to see what’s happening in their field outside the immediate community or to take part in professional development programs?

If not, then should you be surprised if “Becky Home ‘Ecy” grabs a seat on the freebie train?