Posts about rosen

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.


For reasons below and with apologies, I’m late linking to Jay Rosen’s next project, BeatBlogging.

As Jay said, this may not look new because reporters have always been surrounded by networks of experts, people who — pace Dan Gillmor — know more than they do.

But those experts have not been linked and their expertise has not been open. The reporter was a gatekeeper before — only the expertise he chose would make it to the public in print. But now the role of the reporter can and should be different: as a moderator, vetter, enabler, encourager.

So I like to think of this as turning reporting inside-out: Before, the reporter put himself at the center, because it was through him that reporting flowed to the press and public. Now there can be a network of people who report and advise and the reporter should be asking himself what he can do to help them do that better; the reporter stands not at the center but at the edge, which reporters must learn is where the action really is.

So what should that entail? A reporter should make connections: Well, expert A, you say this but expert B says that, why don’t you read each others’ blog posts and push your ideas toward consensus or clear disagreement? Or expert B needs a fact that expert A might have and the reporter makes that connection. And if expert A doesn’t have it, she can extend the network to someone new who does: expert C joins the growing network. And if they’re in a network, experts A, B, and C don’t need the reporter to accomplish this; they can ask and assign each other. Or the reporter gets his network to come together to collaborate not just on a news story but on resources: a wiki history or how-to. The experts certainly should no longer wait until they are asked to be heard; they can and should be publishing and sharing all the time and the reporter can act as an editor, curating that which will be of interest to his public. That public should, in turn, assign the network work: Our public wants to know this, will you guys go find out for us? In a newsroom as classroom, I also imagine that these networks are educational: the experts share knowledge with each other and with the reporter and with the public; the journalists share the tricks of their trade with the network to help them gather and share news and information.

At the end of the day, the definition of the role of the journalist shifts and we can’t be sure where it will end up. That’s why beatblogging is a valuable learning experience.

Last spring, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, sat down and drew one of his famous charts for me: a funnel through which news flowed. The journalist stood at the narrow bottom, the sphincter (my word) controlling the flow. But Alan envisioned moving the journalist up to the wider top where the job changed, encouraging more information — and the right information — to flow into the funnel and to loop around and gather more information in turn (additions, corrections, etc.) in a continuous cycle. That’s what beatblogging is about: figuring out where the reporter stands and what he does.

But here’s the dangerous question: What if the reporter does such a good job organizing such a good network that it runs on its own, gathering and sharing news and information and answering questions that need to be answered, so that the reporter isn’t needed anymore? Could happen, no? But I don’t think it will — if reporters learn to redefine themselves. Indeed, I think that reporters can make themselves even more valuable to wider publics and networks. The key verb in this paragraph is “organize.” In the old definition, at the bottom of that funnel, the verb was “control:” the reporter controlled access to the public and to news judgment and to news events and to the experts. But the internet removes those choke points. And though there are self-organizing systems on the internet, most of them are less self-organized than they look; that was one of Jay’s first lessons when he researched Assignment Zero: open-source projects have wranglers, organizers. The network may not find each other without the organizer; it may not identify the people who really know what they’re talking about; it may not make connections between questions and answers; it may not have someone devoted and paid to getting access and finding facts as a reporter should. The more independently these networks can operate, though, the more efficiently they can run, and the more of them we can have gathering more news and information. But they need organizers. And that means the key skill of the journalist shifts to organization.

I return to the wisdom of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg when he advised media moguls at Davos not to think that they could create communities but to instead realize that these communities already exist and so they should be asking what they can contribute to help them do what they already do better. Mark’s prescription: give them elegant organization. When you think about it, that has always been the mission of journalism: organizing information so communities can organize their activities. Now we have new and better means to do that. So I think beatblogging can get journalism back to its essential mission, discarding the distractions brought on by the means of production and distribution to which the journalists once had exclusive access. The role of the journalist becomes clearer, even purer: They organize information for communities and communities of information.

And that is an active verb. Curating is part of the role and that’s almost passive: finding and gathering and presenting the best of what people are already doing. That’s what Glam and ScienceBlogs do. But in the beatblogging sense, organizing also means mobilizing; it’s more active: Hey, network, let’s come together and go out and gather the information to answer this question together. That’s the next step in a network. So take Glam or ScienceBlogs or the law network in the post immediately below or any beatblogging network and imagine that the reporter-as-organizer can dispatch experts to advance a story. That’s powerful. That’s networked journalism.

: I’m proud that Jay put together part of his network of networks at the Networked Journalism Conference.