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Does the media promote poor farm safety?

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined how much society needs the media to deliver honest information from the best sources available. Hysteria can erupt at the drop of a hat when tensions run high.

But for every Chicken Little who claims the sky is falling, journalists will try to find others who can help balance a story with facts rather than emotion.

Emotion, however, attracts readers, at least to headlines.

And when it comes to farm stories lately, there has been no shortage of emotion.

Consider the international farm worker situation. They’ve been disproportionately infected by the COVID-19 virus, drawing all kinds of criticism about their living conditions. Calls are being made for a reform of the whole program that brings them here in the first place.

That’s the emotional side. Factually, Canada needs these workers to produce food, to do jobs Canadians don’t want to do. Farmers have a huge interest in keeping them safe; there’s no way they intentionally put them in harm’s way.

In some cases, farmers’ efforts at safety have worked. In other headline-grabbing cases, they haven’t. Conditions that have been safe for years, that have repeatedly drawn the same international workers back to the same Canadian farms, are no longer trustworthy.

Another high-profile case is the tragic incident in Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge, Quebec last week where 10 people riding in a tractor bucket where thrown out of it. Four of them died, including three children aged five and under.

That incident gives everyone nightmares. Among the most affected are farm safety advocates.

Three of these advocates, along with a dozen agricultural journalists who are members of the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation, came together virtually on Tuesday for a webinar about reporting farm safety. It had been planned for weeks; the timing was coincidental, but it made the discussion all the more pertinent.

And indeed, the way current events are being reported was very much on everyone’s mind.

Particularly irksome was the use of the term “accident,” and especially in the case of the Quebec fatalities. The unfortunate truth is that while we commonly peg this occurrence as an accident, the situation was absolutely preventable. Riding in a tractor bucket sounds like fun, but it’s widely regarded in the farm community as one of the profession’s most unsafe activities.

That’s a fact that will haunt the tractor operator forever, not to mention the survivors and their families.

In the webinar, journalists were encouraged to report on the cause of such tragedies, to draw attention to safety and make it clear that the consequences of ignoring it, even briefly, can be fatal.

Readers, listeners and viewers want to know how such tragedies occur. So do other farmers.

Journalists were also encouraged to think twice before entering a farm, to ensure their own safety. Farming can be a hazardous job. Visiting a farm as a journalist is inspiring and fulfilling. But it should also be approached with an element of caution, particularly in the midst of farm equipment.

And that leads to the last point. The stories that result from a farm visit are almost always accompanied by photos, because the subject matter is so inviting.

However, the farm safety advocates worry that photographically capturing a farm family can lead to dangerous situations. A good example is the classic photo of farmers in or on a tractor, with one (or more) of their children on their lap.

It’s a photo that many readers have come to expect, which prompts the journalist to set it up.

Or maybe it takes places naturally, because regardless of whether there’s a camera around, that’s what happens on a farm.

In either case, farm safety advocates urge farmers and journalists to reconsider what’s regarded as historically acceptable. Society is changing, and stereotypes and expectations – as well as safety practices – of farming need to change with it.

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