6 May 2022 - Despite the animal production supply chain’s clear plans and good intentions in the fields of sustainability, climate action, animal welfare or other topics, the general public’s view of what’s going on remains very limited.
When it comes to communication and arguing against a bad image, and at times the spread of misinformation, the sector’s approach is traditionally defensive. Industry executives are increasingly warming up to the idea that the sector changes its stance and instead proactively relays positive information rather than constantly be forced to defend itself.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that sector players need to fine-tune their narrative and collaborate to promote the key work that is underway within the sector while also communicating more farmers’ stories to improve the overall image and relatability of animal agriculture.
Feedinfo has been exploring the different means of bringing the animal nutrition narrative to the public, and on its turf – i.e., its own information and entertainment channels. The challenge would be, not only to bridge the gap between the public and the animal nutrition sector, but also to provide a credible and well-produced alternative view to video streaming service feature documentaries such as ‘Seaspiracy’ (2021), ‘Cowspiracy’ (2014) or ‘Rotten’ (2018-2019).
Feedinfo was recently able to discuss the topic with Christine Haughney, an award-winning journalist who created and helped develop the Netflix original series ‘Rotten’. Christine Haughney is currently the Senior editor for NBC News' rebranded Biz Tech & Innovation Unit.
The discussion below between Christine Haughney and Feedinfo editor in chief Simon Duke has been edited and condensed.
[Simon] Christine, in December 2014, you left your staff reporter job on The New York Times media desk to consult with Zero Point Zero Production about developing a series on crimes in the food world, which was called ‘Food Crimes’. In 2016, Netflix purchased ‘Food Crimes’ and turned it into the Emmy-nominated series ‘Rotten’ which first streamed on the network in January 2018. Can you tell me more about that journey and what drove your interest in the project? Ultimately, what do you think also sparked the interest from Netflix?
[Christine] I have always worked as a journalist and I worked for leading American newspapers like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. I was sent by The Washington Post after 9/11 to report on air quality at Ground Zero. The reporting led to the launch of a federal investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2014, I was on maternity leave and had been covering the media industry for The New York Times. I was looking for a way to transition out of traditional print media. During this time, I watched with great interest ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown’ [a travel and food show on CNN]. A contact of mine introduced me to the owners of the production company [Zero Point Zero Production]. I pointed out that there's so much intersection between food and crime. I knew how to dig for court records on the matter, having worked with District Attorneys’ offices on reporting. The production company said, we'll hire you to look into something like this and see if there's something there. We realised that the characters are wonderful. And the food industry connects with audiences because it's something that's really accessible. It's what you eat. I think that when you're taking a product that people can identify with, that always stirs interest.
So, I set myself up at my kitchen table and just started looking into where there was corruption in the food industry and then as I started finding these wonderful characters and stories that you'd want to listen to regardless of if you were in the food industry or any other industry, the production company told me there was something there and they brought me in full-time. We first started by creating four 20-minute videos and putting them on YouTube, promoting them on Twitter, promoting them by going on television and getting media pick up. Eventually, the production company I was with brought them to Netflix who bought them.
But, before getting to that stage, I will say there was a lot of disappointment. A lot of people were not interested in a series about food that involved food and fraud. They said it would be too depressing. In such projects, it is important to anticipate a lot of rejection.
[Simon] During the production of ‘Rotten’, you oversaw a team of investigative reporters who developed the first season's episodes from original idea through postproduction. Should animal nutrition and health industry players work towards creating a documentary series, what do they need to bear in mind when it comes to production?
[Christine] When I was approaching these stories, I was looking for the best ideas, the best characters, the best access. When you have access to good characters, that enables you to tell the best and robust stories. Also, strong stories are grounded in litigation, court records, papers. A paper trail is key. Everything I did is really founded in that. It's really founded in very rigorous journalism. So, the best advice I could give is if you were approached by someone who's doing a documentary, to make yourself accessible and give them the opportunity to tell your side of the story. Production companies are heavily lawyered places, and as a journalist, I couldn't just go out and just say something or write something or produce something without them balancing and checking me out and making sure that I'd done the work. They are very rigorous, making sure the standards are respected.
[Simon] There are many ongoing industry efforts to improve collaboration across sectors, sustainability, animal welfare, food safety, etc. but this is not really being relayed by mainstream media; well not enough to counter the frequent negative press animal agriculture gets. It is in part the industry’s fault that it remains in the shadows, but we can argue that it’s also the consumers’ general lack of interest in agriculture which doesn’t help. The animal nutrition industry argues that some of these documentaries seen on video streaming services don’t necessarily give the bigger picture. Is there opportunity to create a similar series to ‘Rotten’ that gives more spotlight to the side of the industry which remains a bit in the shadows (animal nutrition, animal health, feed industry…)? Are there ways to meet the consumers and provide them with good content they may ultimately care about?
[Christine] I think you really need to distil your approach into something very simple. You really need to simplify the narrative. What can you put on a poster? You can put an avocado on a poster. You can put a chicken on a poster. You can put a single product. Is it something that people are interested in? Perhaps look at who's the best character in your industry.
After having wrapped up with ‘Rotten’, I did this investigation into the growing risk of E. coli poisoning from the lettuce industry with help from the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship. However, lettuce is incredibly important to me as a journalist, but maybe not to the public. Who wants to spend an hour of their Friday night watching documentary about lettuce? You want to take what you're doing and really think and repackage it in a simpler way because that's what's going to draw people to watch it. What is going to make someone click on it when they're looking at their screen? What is really going to catch their attention? Maybe not something purely showing animal nutrition. Also, think about how you will talk about it if you're at a cocktail party, or how would you talk about it with your children? Think of it in terms of like the best stories that you like to tell your family and friends. It needs to be something you can distil it down in the simplest form.
[Simon] When it comes to communication, the animal nutrition sector sees opportunities in talking about the positive solutions that are being provided to the value chain, whilst also debunking myths or misconceptions consumers have. How can this thought-provoking be done without being too pedantic and technical?
[Christine] Again, I think you have to kind of simplify it to draw people and keep the conversation going. ‘Rotten’ was generous with its length to get into things and explain the science for topics that that some people might say are boring. The best thing you can do there is make yourself accessible. When you come from traditional print and you're doing investigative reporting, you're less focused on solutions. My direct experience is that a lot of what Netflix asked us for was solutions-oriented journalism. They didn't want me to just say this is bad, it's not fixable. They were very proactive in asking what the solutions are and what can we do for take-away messages.
[Simon] Farmers are heroes. They fed us during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are feeding Ukrainians during a war… Farmers are increasingly financially constrained but feed us regardless. Despite all this they are oftentimes unfairly targeted. What’s more, the struggle of feeding farm animals will only intensify over the coming years. Farmers are feeling multiple external pressures. Farmers are relatable and their hardships ought to resonate with viewers. How can we present them in better spotlight and make them characters audiences will feel empathy for?
[Christine] That’s something that will always works from a narrative storytelling perspective. When you have a well-intentioned farmer, that's just like a strong character who can speak to many audiences. You also have this kind of physicality of it. You can film a farmer working the fields. They're natural characters for films. So, I would keep focusing on that. I would love to see the sophistication of farming highlighted more. I love talking to younger farmers who or who are really on the ground talking about how they're addressing climate change. Like how it affects the day to day of what they do. That's one way to go. For example, I spent time with a cheesemaker in Wisconsin, who went to the University of Wisconsin’s agricultural school. He studied cheese-making practices in France and apprenticed at farmhouse cheese provider Neal's Yard. He got to highlight that component of farming. I think that there's more you can do in terms of just highlighting the characters, highlighting the diversity of characters’ environments.
[Simon] The animal nutrition industry works closely with farmers and supplies them not only with product, but also with advice. If animal nutrition businesses also opened the doors of their manufacturing hubs and labs, and discussed their pain points as well as the innovations they have, would documentary crews be interested in an inside look at what is going on at these companies who traditionally remain in the shadows?
[Christine] There's huge interest. The bread and butter of a documentary is getting access and being able to tell a narrative. People love watching footage about how things are made and where they come from. One of the challenges is getting access and being able to give the food production narrative from start to finish. It's a constant problem for various industrial privacy reasons. The investigation I did into lettuce was just door after door closing.
There is a lot of interest in getting access to what’s behind the scenes. I can't advise companies on what they shouldn't show us, but I would say people are interested in the full picture. Also remember that storytellers and documentary film makers are coming in from a completely different point of view. Their goal is to tell the best narrative and story and have a consistent story that makes sense. My goal as a journalist here is to make sure that it's journalistically accurate and balanced, that we have supporting documentation, and that we have compelling characters. So, what they're thinking about is not what you're thinking about.
[Simon] Given all that we have discussed, and in the event of the industry players having collaborated and collected enough engaging material and messages to communicate to a mainstream audience, what should they prepare for?
[Christine] Be prepared for all scenarios. I would advise you to not go in and say this has to be a documentary and be in the mindset that if it isn’t a documentary, it's going to fail. Simply because you don't know what format is going to work best for the project. Maybe someone will say this doesn't work as a documentary series, but it might work as a podcast series. It may not be a documentary; it may be a podcast, and that could be fabulous in its own way. You might even reach a bigger audience. When we started with this concept of food and crime, it was called the ‘Food Crimes’ web series. We had no aspirations to turn this into a Netflix series. We didn't know where it was going to go. All we knew was that we had the resources to create four 20-minute videos and we were going to see if it amounted to something. You must be open.
Be open and see where it takes you. And know that the path is like long and winding. Rejection isn’t personal. Accept that. And just never give up, but also know what your limits are to be able to walk away from it if need be.