All journalism is advocacy (or it isn’t)

Jay Rosen wrote an insightful post forking the practice of journalism into “politics: none” (that is, traditional American journalism: objective, it thinks) and “politics: some” (that is, the kind just practised by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian). Jay catalogs the presumptions and advantages of each. As both he and The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan observe, Edward Snowden took his leaks to Greenwald and the Guardian because they exemplify “politics: some.”

I want to take this farther and argue first that what Greenwald and the Guardian were practising was less politics than advocacy, and second that all journalism is advocacy (or is it journalism?).

To the first point: Greenwald and the Guardian were not bolstering their own politics in the NSA story. To the contrary, Greenwald and the Guardian both identify politically as liberal — the Guardian’s mission is to be nothing less than “the world’s leading liberal voice” — yet they attacked programs run and justified by a liberal American administration and no doubt caused that administration discomfort or worse. In so doing, Greenwald and the Guardian exhibited the highest value of journalism: intellectual honesty. That does not mean they were unbiased. It means they were willing to do damage to their political side in the name of truth. Greenwald and the Guardian were practising advocacy not for politics — not for their team — but for principles: protection of privacy, government transparency and accountability, the balance of powers, and the public’s right to know.

Now to my second point: Seen this way, isn’t all journalism properly advocacy? And isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.”

When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of Jay’s “politics: none” ethic — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and coverups, it is, of course, advocating. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that’s advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that’s advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that’s advocacy on your behalf. I might even argue that a critic reviewing a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey could be advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore).

But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of, say, the Jodi Arias crime, which affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no.

So what is it then, the stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve the public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait — at best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, as entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a show or movie — can still inform and enlighten. But if it doesn’t carry information that people can use to better organize their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test.

Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But it was a mistake to then put an umbrella over it all: If a newspaper creates journalism then everything its journalists create in that newspaper is journalism, right? No. The corollary: People who are not journalists can do journalism. It’s a function of the value delivered, not the job title. (I’ll write another post later looking a pricing paradox embedded in this split.)

Why does what seems like definitional hair-splitting matter? Because when a whistleblower knocks on your door, you must decide not whose side you’re on but whom and what principles you serve. This is a way to recast the specific argument journalists are having now about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Wrong question. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed).

The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it adds journalistic value. That is, of course, another journalistic test. Edward Snowden, like Wikileaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents. In both cases, news organization added value by (1) using judgment to redact what could be harmful, (2) bringing audience to the revelation, and most important, (3) adding reporting to this raw information to verify and explain.

Based on his Q&A with the Guardian audience, I’d say that Snowden is proving to be big on rhetoric and perhaps guts but less so on specifics. I still am not clear how much direct operational knowledge he has or whether he — like Bradley Manning — simply had access to documents. So more reporting was and still is necessary. This Associated Press story is a good example of taking time to add reporting, context, and explanation to Snowden’s still-unclear and still-debated documents.

Both these organizations made their decisions about what to reveal and what to report based on their belief that we have a right and need to know. That’s journalism. That’s advocacy.

  • Noel Dickover

    Wait, so an accurate accounting of what happened at the G8 Summit isn’t journalism? Its entertainment? Isn’t there some branch of journalism who’s role is simply to inform what happened at major or local events?

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      The decision to cover the G8 — instead of cute cats — is not an economic decision but instead an advocacy position, especially in the U.S., where Americans care less about international affairs. Or then again, since there’s little reporting and much transcribing going on there, one could still question whether it is the best use of resources or better left to AFP and a link.

      • Noel Dickover

        This almost seems like what I would get if I bundled snow and rain into the same term. Yes, they are both precipitation, but it seems to me there is value in adding additional distinction by separating them into two terms. The implications for snow are different than rain, just as the implications for covering the G8 objectively are very different than covering the G8 with the hope of highlighting the negative impact to worldwide poverty based on a reporter’s view of the decisions. Yes, maybe I can see your point that you “could” define both as advocacy, but it seems to me you are losing important information by categorizing them that way.

  • Guest

    Noel, per the “But what about a TV station…” paragraph, it is. The tests he mention there – whether there is “no lesson to be learned” or “affects none of our lives” are key. Trying to report on the G8 summit objectively is advocacy, and thus journalism, in that what happens there very much affects millions of people. It is thus different than reporting on Kanye & Kim’s baby, which may entertain millions, but doesn’t materially affect their lives nor inform the public on matters of policy.

  • Shaun

    There’s a difference between reporting and journalism. Greenwald and the Guardian reported a story.

  • Simone_DB

    Yes indeed – an excellent analysis. The bottom line is that the values of the journalist dictate what they write.

  • Kevin Convey

    Terrifically provocative post, Jeff. But I can’t agree that the pure reporting of news events isn’t journalism — indeed, it’s the most basic variety of journalism. For example, re-read the great Meyer Berger story (http://partners.nytimes.com/library/national/090749nj-shoot.html). If that’s not journalism, I’m not sure what is. Is it entertainment? No. Does it have a lesson? Not really. Is it advocacy? No. But it is journalism. Ultimately, knowing about something interesting that happened on your street or block, or in your city or country or anywhere in the world, is of value and does have an impact on your life.

  • Andrew Tyndall

    Jarvis —

    You propose the axis of advocacy for assessing journalistic content. Read a story or watch a video package and judge for yourself: where does it stand on the spectrum between essential to the public interest versus rank exploitation?

    I suggest adding a second, perpendicular axis, in order to create a quadrant. How about newsworthiness? Besides advocacy, a journalist has a second imperative when deciding how to cover a given story, namely to turn it into news.

    There are many ways to skin that cat. The newsworthy angle of a story may be the most sensational, the most important, the most controversial, the most unusual, the most recent, and so on. But if you are not in the business of prioritizing the most newsworthy aspect of a given story you are not in the journalism business, however much of an advocate you are.

    After all, there are plenty of forms of expression where we see advocacy advanced that do not fall under the category “journalism.” The discourse of an academic researcher, for example, or a community organizer, or a moral theologian, or a Census Bureau statistician, or an urban traffic smartphone-app designer — all these may fall under the category “advocacy” yet none fall under the category “journalism” since none are looking for what is newsworthy as their first priority.

    Adding this axis to create a quadrant offers a clear way of categorizing what you call “journalism-as-entertainment,” on the exploitation side of one axis while still on the news side of the other. As for the collection of cute cats, that would be in a separate quadrant, the polar opposite to advocacy journalism, with no connection to either the public interest or to newsworthiness.

    Cheers — Tyndall

    BTW: during the recent tornado season, with stormchasing video being increasingly common, the term weather pornography has come into vogue. Pornography, I think, is a useful term for describing the antithesis to advocacy. Not only does it evoke the idea that there is no underlying public interest (the interest, after all, is purely private); it also accounts for the thrilling, compelling, and stimulating nature of its content. Just as we use the term weather-porn, we can usefully term journalism-as-entertainment about the Kardashians as celebrity-porn, or about Judi Arias as true-crime-porn.

  • undertoad

    Don’t give the people what they WANT (cat pictures and fires)

    Give them what they NEED (principled, biased advocacy)

    BUT

    What the people WANT is news that confirms their own biased narrative (nobody tolerates news that doesn’t do this)

    Yet what we ALL DESPERATELY NEED is an accurate narrative on the world.

    AND BY DEFINITION, TRUTH HAS NO BIAS. If you are to be intellectually honest, your only bias must be in favor of TRUTH.

    “Two men say they’re Jesus. One of them must be wrong.” — Mark Knopfler

  • barbara raab

    Hi Jeff —
    I would add that there is also advocacy-by-omission. What a newspaper. tv network, etc., chooses not to report may reflect an advocacy position (or may not). I’m simply saying, look not only at what is there, but at what is not there.

  • will789gb

    Jeff, I have put some comments in my blog so I can relate them to other stuff

    http://hellospiders.com/blog/2013/6/24/hello-jeff-jarvis-re-reposts-guardian-and-anti-americanism

    main aim is to move the Guardian on to current issues re digital publishing. I think you are missed from the print Media pages. They seem to go back to quite a long time ago.

    What seems objective inside the USA may be seen differently around the planet. The UK seems to be even more massive in collecting data. Here we are told it is mostly aimed not at UK citizens (subjects) but online it is not easy to distinguish.

  • adriai

    Hi Jeff,

    What a wonderful, insightful post. I loved the connection you made between journalism and advocacy. It makes the role of the journalist seem that much more noble. I can see that a lot of your readers in the comments below feel that you are trying to say that anything that isn’t advocating something in the news cannot truly be considered ‘journalism’. Personally, I viewed this statement as saying that reporting on things such as Kimye’s baby would technically just be gossip and not true journalism.

    But going back to the whole journalism-as-advocacy topic. I think it’s important for the public to realize that journalists play such a huge role as advocates, especially now with the Edward Snowden debate. I think this is why it is so hard to find good, unbiased coverage on any issue- it is because no matter what, a journalist’s values will always drive them through a story, and it will show. The advocacy movement is only expected to get stronger in the near future, considering that this is the last week for the Supreme Court to make decisions for the year. Stories covering tonight’s SB5 bill in Texas, as well as the invalidation of a key part of the Voting Rights Act, are already being published. And tomorrow, the Supreme Court will also decide on the fate of DOMA and Prop 8. These are all landmark stories- stories that will make civil rights history, and they are more controversial than ever. And when it seems like both sides will fight ceaselessly for what they believe in, it is up to journalists to advocate on what they believe they should inform the public on. Ultimately, the role of journalism as advocacy should be to make a difference in society.

  • Gene Del Polito

    “I think; therefore I advocate”

  • Charles Arthur

    Ah, Jeff, been here before, though probably not with you. You ask: “But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No.”

    No, it’s news. By the definition: “News is stuff I care about [and/or] stuff I want to pass on”. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2006/jun/19/mondaymediasection1)

    Happy to help. – Charles Arthur

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