Are journalism and activism compatible?

Journalism, news and activism

<a href=33227881868.html target="_new">Image by Maaike Schauer / Greenpeace</a> released via <a href=index-272.html target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0</a>
Image by Maaike Schauer / Greenpeace released via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Can a journalist also be an activist for a cause without compromising the core editorial values of journalism? I began thinking about this after being invited to contribute a chapter for a handbook for journalists living in exile.

In the email, the reason for inviting me to write a chapter was expressed as follows, “because you are an experienced journalist and a media activist.”

If journalism is meant to be objective, impartial and fair, then surely a journalist can’t be an activist?

But what if that journalist campaigns for freedom of expression, can that be achieved without compromising the editorial ethics listed above?

The following is an edited extract of a chapter I wrote for the book Becoming a journalist in exile.

Journalism, news and activism

I was honoured when I was invited to write the opening chapter for a book designed to be a guide for journalists in exile who are currently experiencing freedom of expression issues. I have never met the person who invited me to contribute; our only contact has been over the internet.

Our lives couldn’t be more different. He is working, unpaid, as a reporter, editor and publisher in a network of refugee camps, and I have a comfortable lifestyle in England thanks to a long career in journalism.

When I first read the email asking me to write the introduction chapter “because you are an experienced journalist and media activist,” it made me think.

If length of service equals experience, then I guess I qualify as an experienced journalist. I started as a reporter at my home town newspaper in the 70s, moved to radio, became a TV correspondent, and then a political editor before moving to online journalism to be the managing editor of both BBC News Online and Europe, Middle East, and Africa.

I have worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast and online, but, as far as certificates go, my walls are bare. I passed a few basic exams for shorthand, typing and the essential law for journalists more than 30 years ago, but that’s it.

I have never thought of myself as a media activist. In fact I have always thought of activism as being incompatible with true journalism and I have always considered an activist to be someone who pushes a cause without aiming to reflect an alternative view point. If that is the case, and if an activist makes no attempt to remain objective and impartial, how can they also be a journalist?

Journalists must always aim to be removed from the issues they are covering. They must avoid becoming emotionally and politically involved, because once they do they are likely to lose their objectivity. So from my Western perspective I have never considered myself to be a media activist, but I think I understand what the person who contacted me is referring to.

For the last eight years I have been working with journalists in transition and post-conflict countries, and countries where freedom of expression is under threat. In all cases, I have been trying to help them establish strong, independent, high-quality media organisations. In those conditions, I can see the term activism being used in a different way by those who don’t enjoy the levels of freedom of expression that I enjoy in the West.

Perhaps the phrase media activist reflects the realities of what journalists in the majority world face day to day.

I come from a society where journalists are taken out and wined and dined by the powerful and influential, whereas many journalists in the majority world are simply taken out with bullets and bombs.

In that atmosphere it is understandable to come across journalists who view themselves as activists.

However, if a journalist’s role is to seek out truth, reflect the voices and opinions of those who don’t usually have a say, and to represent the whole audience regardless of race, religion, political affiliation and social status, then perhaps a journalist is, essentially, an activist for freedom of expression.

One dictionary definition of journalism is ‘the profession of writing for newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and online’. However, I would argue that journalism, without clearly-defined journalistic ethics, can easily deteriorate into public relations (PR) and marketing.

Journalism has to be accurate. It is all about clear, irrefutable facts that are tested and well set out. Journalism also needs to be well-sourced. All evidence must be checked and verified. All elements of the story need to be thoroughly tested to ensure that they are not misleading and that they don’t magnify one side at the expense of another.

We should use clear, precise wording to tell the story and avoid comment and opinion that could add confusion. We need to be open about what we know, what we think we know and what we don’t know.

Journalism needs to be impartial, objective, balanced and fair. We need to be fair and open-minded and reflect all significant opinions as we explore a wide range of disparate views.

If we decide not to use some views, we need to be clear why. We need to ask ourselves why we are omitting some information or views and including others.

What impact does that have on the piece? Does it help clarify issues, or does it confuse? If it confuses, what could be the consequences of that confusion and who is likely to gain?

We need to be honest with ourselves about our motives and reasons for covering a story. We need to ask searching questions. We need to talk to all sides, particularly those who hold public office. And, in doing so, we need to provide the basis for a healthy and robust public debate. All journalists will have their own political points of view, but these must never creep into our journalism and they must not have any bearing on the choice of stories we cover or the way we cover them.

Perhaps this is where the real meaning of the word activism becomes relevant. When all these conditions have been met, a journalist will have served as an activist for freedom of expression. If so, count me in. Not only do I qualify by definition, but I am proud to be a member of that global fellowship.

However, as far as using journalism to fight for a particular cause, that is a difficult one. In those cases the journalist probably needs to accept that they have crossed a line in the same way that a journalist who moves into public relations (PR) does. Once crossed they are using their skills for a different purpose. They are no longer aiming to reflect all significant strands of opinion but, rather, they have chosen to focus on one and make that their editorial priority.

David Brewer
The author of this piece, David Brewer, is the founder and editor of Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast, and online. He was the managing editor of BBC News Online when the site launched, the managing editor of International EMEA setting out the editorial proposition, hiring staff and overseeing the launch, the managing editor for the launch of CNN Arabic in Dubai, and a launch consultant for Al Jazeera English in Qatar. He has spent many years delivering journalism training worldwide, mainly in transition and post-conflict countries. He is currently mentoring journalists and editors of refugee and exiled media and helping train journalists in countries where the media is still developing.