“On the Record”

By Wesley Conner, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student 

As Swette Center certificate students, we have the pleasure of receiving The Hagstrom Report in our email inbox daily to stay up-to-date on the inside scoop of DC Agricultural politics and news. The man behind the newsletters, Jerry Hagstrom, joined us with Helena Bottemiller Evich, an accomplished agriculture and food journalist from Politico, on a panel to discuss the role of journalism in promoting and informing policymaking. Later we had Matt Herrick, the Senior Vice President/ Executive Director of IDFA Foundation at the International Dairy Foods Association, join in on the conversation as well.

Jerry, who Helena referred to affectionately as the “Dean of Ag Reporting”, recounted his journey into DC politics starting in North Dakota, where he grew up in a family of homesteaders and had strong agricultural ties to his hometown of Bismarck. After a successful journalism jumpstart in his high school paper, he started his career in North Dakota but found his way to National Journal in Washington where he covered  urban affairs, pollsters, and community issues.  Jerry describes the success of the Hagstrom Report as “sort of amazing”, given that agricultural issues aren’t typically the headlining articles or an area of interest for most news consumers. But it’s no surprise for us, given the breadth of reporting and the sometimes eclectic news stories that keeps readers in-the-know about the action in DC. He emphasized for us the need for budding journalists to have a diverse set of interests, and that we might have to be the ones to educate editors about agricultural issues. 

For Helena, she describes her career as a Politico journalist that covers food and agriculture as something she “fell into”; something a lot of us in the group can resonate with in our own areas of work. She is originally from Seattle and didn’t set out to be a journalist, but wanted to pursue a subject matter that was fulfilling and found herself passionate when writing about food safety and policy. Since her start at Politico in 2013 in the food policy section, the food policy landscape has changed drastically with more people interested in in-depth coverage, despite there still being very little mainstream coverage of important agricultural policy (such as the Farm Bill). Her advice is to “stick to a beat” surrounding an issue that interests us, and gave us great interview tips to use in our own Capstone projects for this summer. She and Jerry continued to discuss the plight of local news and how we can do more to reach out to rural communities and address issues that are relevant to farmers, such as the impact of COVID-19 on the labor force and infrastructure.

Lastly we had Matt Herrick, currently at IDFA Foundation at the International Dairy Foods Association, step in to give us his perspective as the previous USDA Press Secretary and as roles in Public Relations and Public Affairs. We learned about the difference working for public, private, and social sectors and how the way a message is delivered is sometimes just as important as the message itself. He laid out tactics to reach audiences, relay action items, specify the messages, and create timelines for action. We also discussed the protocols for “on-the-record” versus “off-the-record”: AKA how to behave with reporters on and off the field. These tips and tricks helped us understand how to build relationships with reporters, and the importance of transparency and honesty being the foundation of those interactions. As Matt clearly stated: “reporters live and die by their sources.”

All in all, these three journalists and PR industry leaders gave us a glimpse behind the curtain of how the important food policy news is conveyed to the public, and how we, as policymakers, can utilize them to empower consumers and influence legislation. It’s folks like Jerry, Helena, and Matt who are bringing America’s attention to important agricultural issues, such as farmland preservation, civil rights, nutrition science, and the lasting impact of COVID-19 on the food system.

This blog is part of a series from the July 2021 Washington D.C. Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House and other agencies, Congressional leadership, industry leaders and other important policy stakeholders.