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Can journalists be activists?

Apr 10,2023 - Last updated at Apr 10,2023

PRINCETON — Should journalists say and write what they think? Recent controversies have given new urgency to old questions about journalists’professional ethics and political role in democracy.

An ongoing defamation lawsuit has exposed how, and how often, Fox News anchors lied to their viewers about claims that the 2020 US presidential election was “stolen”. The BBC suspended former soccer striker Gary Lineker for tweets criticising the British government’s refugee policies, allegedly in violation of the broadcaster’s traditional commitment to impartiality. And journalists everywhere are debating whether taking a political position crosses some dangerous line into “activism”.

Yet, the conventional distinction between “journalist” and “activist” is badly conceived, because there has never been anything passive about journalists’ role. At a time when autocrats are consolidating power by attacking “the media” (or dismissing all critical reporting as “fake news”), those who refuse to call out such behaviour are effectively tolerating rising authoritarianism. There is nothing neutral about their silence.

As many media critics have rightly pointed out, the traditional practice of mechanically reproducing “both sides” of a political dispute often distorts reality. Hence, a 2014 headline in The Atlantic warned, “Yes, polarisation is asymmetric, and conservatives are worse.” Since then, the Republican Party has become fully Trumpified and turned against democracy itself. Portraying such an asymmetrical situation as symmetrical creates the appearance of traditional journalistic objectivity at the expense of truth.

According to media critic Jay Rosen, this “both-sidesism” is driven not so much by a professional ethics of objectivity as by a journalist’s preemptive effort to avoid accusations of “partisanship”. It is more about “refuge-seeking” than “truth-seeking”, covered by a veneer of immaculate neutrality.

Conversely, a journalist who becomes a self-styled member of the democratic “resistance” can lose credibility if such resistance translates into a particular position on issues like the proper size of unemployment benefits, which, while important, are hardly at the core of democracy as such. Since democracies will always have a host of legitimate disagreements to navigate, investing every story with an agenda, be it progressive or conservative, does more than lead to slanted reporting. It also implies contempt for one’s fellow citizens, who apparently cannot be trusted to make up their own minds. There is no shortage of handwringing about the public’s declining “trust in the media”, but this relationship goes both ways.

Rather than framing the issue as “journalism versus activism”, a more useful distinction is that between reporting and advocacy (which is not the same as “opinion journalism” offered by figures who routinely comment on all kinds of issues). Both practices have to rely on facts, and both ask their audiences to keep an open mind. While reporters’ primary emphasis is on informing, advocates focus on reforming; but that goal need not bar them from doing investigative work, on the contrary, it is often what gives such work its force.

Critics of advocacy portray it as an alternative to faithful reportage of facts without bias. But a good advocate will of course pursue what Carl Bernstein famously called the “best obtainable version of the truth”. One need only look to Ida B. Wells, who repeatedly risked her life to report meticulously on lynching in the American South. Careful, accurate reporting was the very basis for her campaigning, not somehow its opposite.

What distinguishes advocacy from reporting is that it goes beyond presenting the facts by building a community of followers. Maintaining continuous communication for and about a cause has always been the best way to create and mobilize support for it. As long as the process is out in the open, there need not be any clash with professional ethics.

The crux of the Fox News scandal is not that it showed Fox to be openly partisan; it’s that the network’s “stars” and producers knew that claims of a “stolen” election were false and chose to amplify them anyway. Ratings and profits came before facts. This ordering of priorities was made manifest at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic: while Fox’s on-screen personalities were clamoring for “freedom” and “opening the economy”, Fox’s offices remained closed and its employees were asked to work from home.

Professional news organisations (a category that obviously does not include Fox) can have both advocates and reporters. What matters is that a news organisation’s audience can assess what it is about, how it makes editorial choices and how it makes money. These criteria are easier to meet if media organisations have public editors who engage with audience concerns seriously, thereby increasing trustworthiness.

To be sure, as Pippa Norris of Harvard University notes, trust is not a good in itself. Plenty of people trusted online quacks and COVID deniers during the pandemic, and some people are still reaching for patently unsuitable medications like Ivermectin because Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro endorsed it as a “cure”. What a democracy needs from its citizens is what Norris calls sceptical trust, based on evidence of institutions’ competence and integrity, not cynical mistrust or credulity.

By engaging with audiences and being transparent about advocacy and reporting, media organisations can increase trust by proving their own trustworthiness. Reporters and advocates, alongside columnists and freelancers like Lineker, must be objective, which is to say they must strive for accuracy. But supporting a cause and building a community for it is not the same thing as “bias”. What’s more, when protections for free speech and the press are under relentless assault from autocrats, the virtue of impartiality can become a vice.


Jan-Werner Mueller, professor of Politics at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of “Democracy Rules” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021; Allen Lane, 2021).  Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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