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The best journalism is a kind of advocacy

Written by Sherwin, published on August 20, 2013

I’ve been interested in hearing more about a case of a PEI writer and journalist who was ejected from the Press Gallery for being an advocate. I have thoughts about this. Most saliently I believe that journalists are advocates.

I’m not alone in this belief. Recently Matt Tabai at the Rolling Stone suggested this. David Edwards at Global Research defends this view.1 And here’s Benjamin Cosman at policy mic saying the same. The context of these three articles is Glen Greenwald and the revelation that we may well live in a surveillance regime. I should note that there’s some points in these articles I also disagree with; I believe, for example, in objectivity. I believe there are many varieties of objectivity, and it’s never absolute. But this is somewhat a distraction to the point.

The point is that journalists are advocates

Journalism’s stated mission is to act in the public interest. That implies that the press has a duty to challenge centres of power: thus the saying, “as journalism goes, so goes democracy.” 2

Therefore the best journalism is a kind of advocacy.

I would actually argue that all journalism is advocacy, but there are obviously stronger and weaker versions of this thesis. But even the weaker versions will need to see journalism as a variety of advocacy, sometimes.

It’s time for journalism to let go of the myth of a neutral perspective, or a view from nowhere. What is this, the 1950s? Hello 2013. Really, I think it’s generational, but it’s also a matter of privilege. People with privilege think that their worldview isn’t political. People with privilege think that their perspective is neutral.

And people with privilege still pretend that the full disclosure of where they’re coming from detracts from their objectivity. Some “journalists” do this on purpose, to exert more influence and to look more authoritative. Some journalists are simply unaware of their own point of view.

The flip side of this is that many modern readers are, rightfully, more trusting of writers that are comfortable disclosing their interests and perspectives. This is partly why articles by environmentalist, social activists, policy wonks and advocates, in general, are often more journalistic and have more integrity than articles written by reporters and columnists who are: a) cagey, b) actively hiding their interests, c) failing to disclose their assumptions, d) aligning their values with commercial supporters, e) working to avoid alienating centres of power, f) lacking expertise and therefore resort to he-said she-said reporting and fail to take a stand.

Jay Rosen, and others, have suggested that instead of seeing people who are or aren’t journalists, we should try to understand in what contexts people act as journalists. That is, people have journalistic moments. Even people who aren’t professional journalists, have journalistic moments.

The beauty of this approach is that it also explains the all-too-common sense that a certain reporter has failed to be journalistic enough in a given article.

As the professional press shrinks, and in-house comms teams grow (think of NASA, TED talks, municipal political bloggers and the IPCC) we had better expand our understanding of what journalism is. The press may shrink (or maybe not), but journalism must not. Not if we care about democracy.

  1. See also this great overview by Jay Rosen: http://pressthink.org/2013/06/david-gregory-tries-to-read-glenn-greenwald-and-the-guardian-out-of-the-journalism-club/
  2. Other’s have said the job of journalists is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” Still others quote William Randolph Hearst: “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.” http://somerandomnerd.tumblr.com/post/2153636752/news-is-something-somebody-doesnt-want-printed
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