Georgina Gustin – Reporter, Roll Call
In the most extreme sense, the recent government shutdown showed America how essential regulatory food agencies are, as in the case of a slower-than-usual response by the Centers for Disease Control regarding a salmonella outbreak. On the other end of the spectrum, many found the recently expired Monsanto Protection Act legislation a pet cause, debating the issue of how much biotechnology should alter our food supply.
Fielding these and related issues in the press is Georgina Gustin, recently named reporter for Congressional Quarterly’s Roll Call as of October 2013. She’s the first staffer dedicated to coverage of food and agricultural policy, with a focus on the federal government’s regulatory agencies, including the EPA, FDA and USDA.
The field of food and agricultural policy has become Gustin’s milieu, a niche she established for herself during her time at St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“I was noticing there were a lot of food-related issues on the front pages of newspapers all around the country six to seven years ago, and I thought, we should be looking at this a little more seriously. People care about food and farming more than they ever have, and they care about energy and environmental issues related to agriculture,” she said.
While food coverage in and of itself isn’t alien to newspaper pages, Gustin saw a need for a new angle. “We needed to be treating food with a little more rigor. Food coverage had been confined to the pages of the Features section, which is fine, but that’s where the recipes and the restaurant reviews go. I felt like it should be in the news pages more,” she explained.
St. Louis is home to many commodity groups, as well as biotechnology and agricultural behemoth Monsanto, but Gustin realized she needed to be where the policy was being made to truly cover these issues. Gustin is pioneering new territory for Roll Call’s Executive Briefing series, which is aimed at executives with a stake in Washington policy, quite a shift from the Post-Dispatch’s suburban readership.
The razor-sharp focus of Roll Call’s coverage presents Gustin with the opportunity to explore policy and related Congressional action more intensely, but she also needs to challenge an already well-informed audience. “If I say something is herbicide-tolerant or mention GMOs, I don’t have to explain on the first reference. The language is more insider-y. What you’re doing essentially is giving access to CQ’s resources and saying look, here’s what I found,” she said.
Now that business-as-usual is about to resume on Capitol Hill, Gustin can do the kind of journalism she holds in high regard, the kind that maintains an informed democracy. She explains how information sharing has changed in a digital era. While completely supportive of the technology to do so, the ever-present issue of a financially viable digital journalism is still a hurdle the industry has yet to clear.
“People are really used to getting information for free, they don’t want to have to pay to get solid journalistic information. There’s a diminishing of understanding out there because there’s so much information going around about what is a solidly reported, good “fact,” or some blogger in his mom’s basement hammering out his opinion and throwing it out there as the gospel truth. Increasingly, I don’t think people know the difference,” she explained.
Gustin insists that our regulators, our government, police departments and the like must be monitored by those trained to do so. Bereft of such investigators, her prediction for the future is even more unsettling. “Unless we figure out a way to encourage people to pay for the coverage, this craft, this profession will go away, and that piece of our democracy will have failed. From my perspective, that’s a really sad thing, she said.
Gustin is open to receipt of press materials and pitches via email, but notes “we’re just inundated, and it’s really frustrating and irritating when I get things that are completely off base. I get pitches about National Cupcake Week, or how to make a better roast chicken or whatever. And I don’t write about that stuff,” she said.
PR professionals should note that her coverage in the food and agricultural field is strictly relegated to policy and regulatory agencies such as the EPA, USDA and FDA. She advises everyone to do their homework before making contact.
“If somebody is pitching me, I want them to know what I write about and I’ll respond to that, because I know that some care has been put into it. When I get what I know is a blast email that has been sent out to probably thousands of reporters, I just hit delete. I don’t even look at it,” she said.
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