Why we need advocacy journalism

When “objective” journalism decays into a cowardly neutrality between truth and lies, we need advocacy journalism to lift our profession – and the community leaders we cover – back to credibility.

That’s my response to a source quoted in an item posted by Jim Romenesko yesterday. The post linked a TVWeek.com/NewsPro survey that listed Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications as the nation’s top journalism school. (USC Annenberg was listed fifth, FWIW.) What caught me eye was one of the quotes Romenesko selected from the original story to include in his post:

“One reply stated schools should teach ‘objectivity. Too many schools are teaching advocacy journalism.'”

Let’s dive in: Advocacy is not the antonym of objectivity. Objectivity is the goal of accounting for your own biases when observing of an external reality, so that your report accurately reflects that reality. By reporting objectively, the goal is that you be able to produce an observation that others, observing the same reality, can reproduce.

There’s nothing about objectivity that prohibits you from advocating on behalf of your results. In fact, putting your work up for peer review, and being able to defend it, is part of the scientific method that influenced the journalistic concept of objectivity.

Every journalist advocates for their stories – anyone who thinks otherwise has never hung around an editor’s desk or been to a front-page budget meeting. So advocacy’s part of the job. And as journalism schools are supposed to be teaching their students how to advance their careers, they need to be teaching their students how to advocate for their work – whether that’s getting an assignment approved, a freelance gig okay’ed, or a story onto P1 or into the first slot on the website’s homepage.

When I’ve asked journalism students why they decided to get into the field, I’ve yet to hear anyone respond that they were looking for a big payday. Idealism motivates almost every journalism student – and journalist – I’ve met. We want our reporting to help make our communities better places and help our readers live better lives.

So we get into this field looking to advocate for worthy causes, and we use internal advocacy to get our stories heard. Allow me to suggest, therefore, that the problem some journalists have with “advocacy” is not the concept itself, but those who put advocacy ahead of the truth, instead of behind it, where it belongs.

Objectivity is a means to an end – that end being truthful reporting. And if truthful reporting leads to an obvious conclusion, a reporter and publication cheat their readers if they pull back and don’t follow their reporting to that conclusion, and fail to advocate for their community reading it – and acting on it.

We cheat our communities – and our profession – when we decide first what we’re going to advocate for, then cherry-pick reporting to make a case for it. And, yes, Fox News, I am writing about you. (Isn’t it time yet that Fox News becomes a resume stain that disqualifies its employees from future work in J-schools and reputable news organizations?) Our disdain for propagandists shouldn’t turn us against advocacy – it should embolden us to become even more aggressive advocates for the truth that propagandists (such as Fox News’ shills) attempt to deny.

Of course, that cause isn’t helped when self-proclaimed fact-checkers in our profession decide to rubber-stamp Fox News talking points. This week, PolitiFact selected as the “lie of the year” the Democratic claim that votes for a Republican plan to replace fee-for-service Medicare for everyone under age 55 with a completely different voucher system were votes to “kill Medicare.” (See the link above for why PolitiFact’s conclusion is pure B.S.)

My favorite response to PolitiFact’s selection? This tweet: “If I kill a man and take over his identity, I actually did not commit a crime. Thanks PolitiFact!”

Journalism deserves better than this. Our communities deserve better than this. But they won’t get better than this if journalists decide that our primary professional goal is to always remain neutral in everything – to never take a stand. That just leaves us as ineffective bystanders while propagandists set the public agenda.

The only way that we will better serve our profession, and our communities, to become advocates for the truth. And that means calling out those voices in our community – including PolitiFact – when they get things wrong.

I’m glad that some professors are teaching advocacy journalism. We get into this field to raise some hell and make things right. Let’s never forget that – let’s embrace it.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. Great post. I ran into this same criticism — “You’re an advocate!” — when encouraging journalists to add a public health approach — or solution-oriented approach — to crime reporting. My response: if I’m an advocate for less violence, isn’t the opposite being an advocate for more violence? We’re not in the business of telling communities HOW to solve their problems. Our role as journalists is to help communities solve problems by providing them the best information possible to make good personal decisions and public policy. And, if necessary, being the conscience of the community if it’s not doing anything about eliminating child trauma or racism or inequality, for example.

  2. says:

    Great post Robert. We have enough journalists already with nothing to say. We hardly need any more. — Marc Cooper.