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The Paradox of Activist Journalism

“I’m one of those who takes the dharma of being a journalist seriously, believing that the vocation brings with it certain responsibilities. But I don’t think activism is one of them. I believe that the function journalists ideally perform, of providing information and insight, is too important to be diluted by anything.”
– Amit Varma, a novelist and blogger based in Mumbai.

I remember once meeting a tall, lanky man in crowded Piccadilly; the first thing that struck me was the most bizarre scarf wrapped around his neck that looked like something out of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. But to my luck, he was also an ex-journo.

After making with the social pretences, I asked him why he chose a career as a journalist. He scratched his patchy, post pubescent stubble before telling me (rather candidly): ‘Being a journalist is not for the awards or the gear, or the sweet press passes. It’s for something more. It’s knowing that what you write is read by people who matter; and it may only be wishful thinking, but what if your work could actually influence public policy?’
I pointed out that this was almost the same as being a social activist, and he agreed, but still persisted in his belief that journalists and activists play different roles in society. Activism is a movement attempting to bring about change; and at the core of activism lies an ‘agenda’, ultimately making it an oxymoron to journalism.

 For me, it comes down to the basic question of whether a person can suspend their own beliefs in order to become a reporter – Chance Martin, the editor of the Coalition on Homelessness publication Street Sheet, says: “I don’t think that being a journalist means I have to suspend my knowledge of the difference between right and wrong.”
And maybe Martin is right.

The power of a free press

Journalism is like a gun. It can turn into an instant short-term weapon; aim it right and you could change the world. And what’s better, you get more than one shot.

The merit of newspaper journalism is perhaps best proven by the Watergate scandal. Two reporters at The Washington Post published a series of investigative articles about alleged cover-ups and corruption during the Nixon administration.  Their reporting eventually led towards Nixon’s resignation, the only resignation in the history of US presidency.

These days, there seems to be an inherent belief that almost anyone can become a reporter. In relation to this, I’m reminded of Adrian Monck, head of Journalism at City University, who said: “People may be disillusioned with print journalism, but at least it is moderated in a way that blogging is not.  Bloggers simply do not have the gravitas for high-profile political items, and many people still harbour much doubt about one crucial element: truth.” Roger Simon, Politico’s chief political columnistrecently declared: “Use of social media and electronic media obviously means that anybody with a laptop, anybody with a PDA, is a journalist.”

But I disagree. With that kind of logic, because I can change a light bulb, I can become an electrician. I can change a tyre, does that make me a mechanic? Sure, everyone has a voice, but is it articulate? Is it trustworthy?

To me, professional journalism isn’t just an occupation. It takes experience, skill, creativity and determination. Depending on your specialism, it involves planning, precision, analysis and evaluation.
So being able to post an event or scoop on Twitter doesn’t make you a journalist… it makes you someone who is aware of what happens around you.

Preserving the fourth estate

First things first, there is a line, no matter how blurred, between journalism and activism. Simply put in an equation: Journalism – Ethics = Activism.
Journalism, in principle, is about the reporting of facts. It’s all about bringing out the truth to the people with honesty and responsibility. One can’t be given the title of ‘journalist.’ Journalist is an earned identity, and the facts journalists select, the language they choose, and the narrative they arrange has to be a fair representation of circumstances – as if the reader had served in the journalist’s place. In other words, journalistic ethics are seen as the most important part of a free press. Ideally, professionalism is being unbiased and the standing government is formed with protection for a free press because it would neutralise the propaganda of politicians; to the idealist, journalism should not take refuge under the umbrella of patriotism.
So in a sense, the Lanky Man was correct; news may be used for decision-making simply because it modifies the reader’s vision of reality. Society doesn’t necessarily keep a true picture of reality in their head, just a draft of it.

The differences between journalism and activism are not exactly simple; journalism is about digging and involves investigation and reporting of events, issues, and trends to a broad audience. Journalism’s role is to act as a medium between public and policy making establishments. On the other hand, activism is defined as an intentional action or inaction to bring about social or political change in the society for the benefit of a particular stakeholder. This action is in support of or in opposition to one side of an often controversial argument. Social activists may become emotionally or politically involved, as seen with many feminist campaigns (you know the ones; patriarchy, the need for a sexual revolution, formation of a sisterhood and all that).
But according to the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, journalists must always aim to be removed from the issues they are covering. Their articles and pieces should instead provide the basis for a healthy and robust public debate.
Typically activism maintains that people need to transform from the inside as well as on the outside to bring about any meaningful change in the world. Journalism’s main obligation is to tell the truth and relate it to the public as it is without adding or subtracting any fact even if it is for the benefit of the people.

Changing perspectives

In a stark contrast, Terry Messman of Media Alliance, a media resource and advocacy centre for media workers and social justice activists, argues: “The voices of dissent and outspoken critique have largely been silenced, in favor of so-called objective reporting that, for all its avowed neutrality, seems always to uphold the established order.” (www.media-alliance.org).
Activist journalists suggest that a free media must engage in activism to bring about change for the greater good.

Many observe that the terms journalism and activism have always gone hand in hand throughout history and are both an active parts of society; Messman has suggested that many ‘forms of politically engaged journalism have arisen to fight social injustices’ and hence, put forward the idea that journalism and activism cannot do without one another.

So, do journalists inevitably double up as pro-democracy activists?
Well, the short answer is yes. Journalists treasure their sacred right to freedom of expression because without it, well, they wouldn’t be journalists.
Indeed, journalism  can be used as a very effective means of activism and being an ‘activist journalist’ has been proven to be a powerful force.
With the advent of Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks, the terms activism and journalism are enjoying a new found fondness for each other. But is it a doomed relationship, threatening the traditional concepts of neutrality and objectivity? Or is the former just a ‘lockstep with the corporate vision of safe, sanitized, sideline-sitting reporting,’ which fails to teach the benefits of ‘justice journalism’?

Whilst maintaining balance and staying neutral are concepts every journalist should follow, it is questionable as to whether pure objectivity really even exists anymore (or ever existed); in these times, it seems real journalism requires the reporter to talk to – not at – audiences of millions, making the story personal rather than keeping a distance. No doubt the line between activism and journalism continues to be disputed today.

Note: Coincidentally, Roy Greenslade of The Guardian had also published his own views on these issues: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2011/jun/27/us-press-publishing-new-york-times



One thought on “The Paradox of Activist Journalism

  1. “Activism is a movement attempting to bring about change; and at the core of activism lies an ‘agenda’, ultimately making it an oxymoron to journalism.”

    I so wish this was true.

    Posted by Jebediah | April 14, 2014, 11:09 AM

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