Food Journalism: Ethics, Investigations And Stories

April 6, 2015 • Recent, Specialist Journalism • by

We have come a long way from the days when writing about food consisted of publishing nice recipes in women’s magazines. Now publications proclaiming the newest food trends fill newsagents around the world and proliferate online. Yet “food journalism” remains a new term.

When I tell people I research food journalism they commonly respond: “I love food too! So you get to eat a lot in restaurants?” I bet few economics journalist are told: “I love money too! So you spend a lot?” But I don’t blame them. It is a new field, with great variety.

There are still recipes and restaurant critics, but there are also first-person essays, human interest stories and stories dealing with historical, religious and cultural perspectives on food. There are also gastronomic trends and phenomenons to cover.

Writers such as Michael Pollan, also a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, have made their name through conscious critiques and reportage of the food industry.

The biggest change in food journalism has been that when we read about food, we now read about people as well. Grandmothers, chefs, farmers, bakers, idealists – people with passion for food. Food journalism has become about storytelling.

Investigative food journalism

There are also stories involving food that many don’t want to see the light of day. Horse or rat meat sold as beef, poisonous milk powder, so-called ‘mad cow disease’, old food sold with new labels, and foul ingredients in cheap fast food are a few examples.

Current topics in Europe are, for example, how Belarus is importing EU-products to Russia, despite the food sanctions and the poor quality of hospital food in the UK.

Yet it’s nothing new for investigative journalists to take on food as an issue. In 1906, Upton Sinclair, novelist and muckraker, revealed the unsanitary practices of a Chicago meat packing company in his book The Jungle. It was a huge scandal and the book became a bestseller. And it also had an impact: meat consumption decreased and new food hygiene laws were introduced.

With a wide range of topics such as food industrialism, health studies, legislation and politics – the buffet is open for investigative food journalists.

Commercial challenges

Food journalism is also about business. Good reviews of a restaurant can have a huge impact on its income. The story of a newly-opened cafe, whose owner has overcome hardships, can attract sympathetic customers. Praising a new organic, local bio-burger in an article could have a greater economic impact than paid advertising.  Food journalists have an ethical responsibility to be objective and to tell the truth. Readers rely on their honesty.

Advertisers always want new ways to be involved with consumers. Boundaries between advertisements and journalistic content are being stretched: in some magazines it’s already possible to buy sponsored articles. If a story includes a recipe: what harm would it do if a brand is mentioned? That’s a typical question faced by food magazine editors. The challenge is to keep the advertiser happy, yet to still write critically and objectively about food.

A warning example comes from Finland in the 1960’s: A magazine called Uusi Kuvalehti published an article that claimed the fat in Margarine comes from dead animals. The sales of Margarine plummeted and advertisers boycotted Uusi Kuvalehti. The magazine quickly went bankrupt.

Vision for the future

Food is a vital part of our lives, and has become a vital part of our media. Just standing in the newspaper kiosk in Berlin makes me hungry: the Zitty magazine cover shouts how easy it is to live in Berlin as a vegan, next to it is a Tip Berlin cover where tattooed arms serve veggie dishes and the title declares that food is the new pop. Newspapers describe food in their economy, health, travel and politics pages. Even the television guides are all about food-related shows and TV-chefs.

Yet food journalism is facing the same struggles as the rest of journalism: how to earn money from web content? How to be part of social media and compete with people’s time amid the social media frenzy?

Instagram feeds are all about food photos, the amount of food blogs has exploded, there are several online services where anybody can rate and review restaurants.

And that is why food journalism is revelling in a golden era. Well-written background articles, touching human-interest stories, restaurant reviews comparable to novellas, and exposés that about food-related hoaxes or scams are stories that only professional journalists can cover. The quality is better than ever, and there will always be an audience for quality journalism.

And food will always be part of our lives.

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