Dairy Blackout

Story by Kelly Conde 

A story about cow hooves was all Mychel Matthews was after. Reporting for the Times-News out of Twin Falls, Idaho, she wanted to tell her readers how large dairy operations trim their cattle’s hooves. But days before the photo shoot and interview, the industry opted out.

In 20 years on the agriculture beat, access to sources has never been so difficult for Matthews. “The dairymen are extremely nervous,” she said. “The managers of these dairies don’t want any publicity because it will be turned into bad publicity even if it starts out as good.”

Things came to a head when, in February of 2014, Idaho’s legislature passed a bill making it illegal for anyone to film, video, or take photos without authorization. Known as the ag-gag law, the new rule was applauded by the agricultural industry, which according to Matthews had lost all faith in the media.

Six months later, a confidential letter written by the United Dairymen of Idaho (UDI) to all Idaho cattle industries urged dairymen to deny media tours or interviews.

Once the letter had been leaked, the UDI issued a retraction, stating that it did not accurately portray its position toward the media.

Matthews called the ag-gag law an extreme response to extreme activism on the part of animal rights activists. “We’ve lost balance,” she said.

Nate Carlisle, a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, said the problem for journalists is that the new rules are applied too broadly. The Tribune is challenging the constitutionality of the Utah ag-gag law in court.

Meanwhile, in Idaho, Matthews is concerned about how to do her daily work. The law has affected her ability to talk to people and their willingness to talk to her. And without that conversation, she doesn’t have a story.

Kelly Conde is a recent-ish graduate of the University of Montana’s environmental science and natural resource journalism program. She now lives in Stanley, Idaho, and works for the Sawtooth Society.