Is Food Journalism for You?
Roberta L. Duyff, MS, RDN, FAND, FADA, Guest Blogger
Food journalism defined…
It’s not only about cooking an artichoke, or giving the pros and cons of different gluten-free foods, or offering feeding tips for choosey toddlers.
Instead, food journalism is about life, culture, and today’s cutting-edge issues, addressed through the lens of food. It’s characterized by a direct presentation of facts or a description of events, as defined by Merriam Webster, without attempting interpretation. It’s highly relevant, arguably local as well as global, and suited to many media platforms.
For nutrition communicators who are eager and able to “dig deep,” food journalism offers opportunities to take their writing careers in new and perhaps broader directions. And that helps ensure that evidence-based nutrition science is part of a broad food dialogue.
Food journalism today …
As just one type of food writing, food journalism has evolved to new importance in the world of journalism, giving opportunities to more voices, with new perspectives, for a multitude of conversations about food, on more platforms. That said, you don’t need a journalism degree to be a valued voice in food journalism. But you do need a curious and keen mind, the ability to uncover the untold story, and good writing skills.
Recently the James Beard Foundation brought prominent food journalists together to address today’s state of the profession.* They focused on shifts in food journalism -- now with less traditional print media and fewer well-known voices, and more digital and inclusive content from those often left out. There’s a new imperative, too, they noted, in current and in post-pandemic eras. The stories of food in small towns and local restaurants, from food pantries and pack-to-go food service, and certainly home cooks offer stories and perspectives that journalists in major media outlets, housed in major cities, may not have access to.
What does that imply? Democratized, with a greater diversity of voices and plenty of news angles, today’s food journalists can write about nearly everything since food is central to culture. It’s not just about hot food trends, top chefs, and must-try restaurants, uncommon foods, and recipes. In fact, many defining issues of our times can be – and many should be --addressed through the lens of food and nutrition: for example, economic inequity, environmental concerns, immigration, and farm labor, cultural diversity, sustainability and resource management, changing parenting and lifestyle norms, today’s food insecurity even among those of means, and the list goes on.
Moreover, with today’s COVID-19 pandemic, food journalists have new -- often poignant or remarkable -- stories to tell to make the “invisible” people in restaurants, the food supply chain, and everyday families become visible. The pandemic has also changed our relationship to food and put food journalists in “uncharted territory.”
Food journalism, powerful when it …
· Focuses on what’s real, relevant, and doable, rather than what’s aspirational and perhaps unachievable. In other words, rather than stories with recipes that feature hard-to-come-by ingredients, unique culinary skills, and pretty food pictures, of greater value may be everyday stories, about basic ingredients and basic skills, from home cooks. Home cooks can show how people truly eat at home and often best able to show the value of their own local ingredients.
· Gives voice to those who haven’t been heard. For example, rather than focus mostly on chefs or artisanal food producers, the stories from those without publicists, such as line cooks, food safety inspectors, food warehousers, research chefs, fishmongers, food product scientists, and milk truck drivers, need to be told.
· Tells stories, without being exploitive. Food writing is all about people, and food is a connector. Others may open up about their stories if you share your own pain. Step outside your comfort zone, cover food stories of those outside your community, and embrace your discomfort. Consider training in implicit bias. Right now, readers want to hear how others are coping with food shopping, mealtime and family meals, and perhaps the food insecurity that has come with the pandemic.
· Delves deeper. Today’s stories need more granularity, or a deeper level of detail. That, for example, may have an important result: helping consumers understand and better respect the true economic, human, and environmental costs of food production and the restaurant industry. To gather that granularity as you research and interview, “listen” to all that’s around you. While you can’t expect to learn all the answers, others expect you to ask good questions. Allow yourself to write, “We don’t know yet.”
· Start local, make it global. Food news happens in small towns and rural areas, and wherever you live and work, and not only big cities. While more localized today, food journalism must also capture flavors, cultures, and food supply chains in a global context. Look in your own backyard for the stories linked to today’s critical food and nutrition issues– but fit them into a broader context, too.
· Reflects these qualities: Writing that honors diversity, inclusiveness, and equity. Prepare before you interview and write, with both homework and heart.
Your call to action: Over the three 3-year terms that I served on the James Beard Foundation Journalism Award Committee, many award entries took deep dives into today’s important food and nutrition issues. That clearly showed: The opportunities are limitless for nutrition communicators. Add your voice and perspectives on your choice of media platforms, as you contribute your expertise to food journalism. You too could garner a Beard award for journalism!
“Food journalism is reveling in a golden era, but in the future it’s more about the bigger themes, the bigger picture—everything that food is attached with will be on the plate.”
… Pauliina Siniauer, Food Journalist
* This blogpost reflects insights of Jamila Robinson, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Kat Kinsman, Food and Wine Magazine and the Communal Table podcast, and Stef Ferrari, Life & Thyme Magazine and The Migrant Kitchen TV series, as shared in the James Beard Foundation webinar, “The State of Food Journalism,” April 20, 2020, https://register.gotowebinar.com/recording/7834112013767106818
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