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.

Why I am rooting for News Corp. to fail

I’ll fess up: I’m rooting for the phone hacking scandal to be the downfall of News Corp.

I don’t take lightly a desire to see a company fail, especially one that employs thousands of people who, in turn, support families and communities. But the list of News Corporation’s sins against journalism, and society, is long, even if one overlooks the repugnant phone hacking. Instead of speaking truth to power, News Corp. tries bending truth to power.

Allow me again to state that I have no problem with political advocacy by news organizations or even by individual journalists, so long as that advocacy is the final point in a journey that begins with reporting and discovery of truth. I have a problem with political advocacy in journalism only when it represents the first step in the process, dictating the reporting and presentation of information to an audience.

That some News Corporation subsidiaries, especially Fox News, allow the political ideology of its leadership to direct its news gathering and presentation should not be disputed by any reasonable journalist at this stage. Fox News has subsumed the Republican Party power structure in the United States, to the point where GOP operative David Frum once said on ABC’s Nightline: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.”

Don’t mistake my opposition to Fox, and News Corp., as simple opposition to its political ideology. My argument is about power, and the danger of allowing a single entity assume too great a voice in our public discussion.

The abuse of power is an issue than can unite liberals and conservatives, and progressives and libertarians, within the journalism industry. I was inspired to write today by Howard Owens, who tweeted earlier this week: “There’s an aspect of the News Corp. scandal not being discussed — that bigness leads to things like this.”

For those of you who don’t know Howard, I don’t think he would dispute my characterizing him as a strong libertarian, and someone with whom I disagree on a great many political issues. But I believe that he and I agree on this one: Size breeds power – and power corrupts.

I would extend that thought: Power in journalism corrupts the truth, too.

Size and power become symbiotic, especially when an organization (or a bank account) grows beyond a certain tipping point. News Corp. long ago passed that point, in both Britain and the United States. News Corp.’s ability to command fear and favor from elected officials stripped its leadership and employees of fear of consequence for breaking the law. So, it appears in Britain and possibly in the United States, they did.

If someone’s not afraid of breaking the law, do you really believe that the ethics of responsible journalism and truthful news reporting are going to bind such people, either? Of course not. Anyone who dismisses the law for power will dismiss the truth to preserve their power, too.

Our loyalties as journalists ought to be to the truth first, our communities next and our industry after that. I know colleagues who have said that they feel a reflexive obligation to defend fellow journalists when they are attacked. The managers and employees of News Corp. do not deserve that support. To defend News Corp. now, after all this, is to deny our higher obligations to community and to truth.

The journalism industry, collectively, must speak with the authority to move our communities in a positive direction. But we fail that cause when we allow individual voices in our industry to gain such power that they can dominate the conversation for their own ends.

The investigations into News Corp.’s wrong-doing are not an attack on journalism, or on a free press. They are its needed defense. Yes, I’m rooting for the downfall of News Corp., and the people who run it.

And as a journalist, you should be, too. And telling your readers.

It's time for journalists to stand up against Fox News

Rolling Stone’s profile of Fox News chief Roger Ailes this week provides the latest item in a long line of evidence that Fox News is a morally bankrupt sham of a news organization – a propaganda outlet that engages in intentional lying to advance its partisan cause. If you haven’t read the piece yet, do. It’s vital media criticism.

I’ve met plenty of journalists who bristle when I criticize Fox News. They’ve told me that, as defenders of free speech and the First Amendment, journalists should not be in the business of trying to silence other voices in the media marketplace.

But as defenders of truth, journalists also have an obligation to call out voices that intentionally spread lies to the public. Fox News’ owners and executives have a right to speak. But they don’t have a right to set the public agenda. It’s past time for responsible journalists to stand up against Fox News.

Tim Dickinson’s piece reviews many of Fox News’ offenses against the truth. Don’t fall for the line that it’s only Fox’s commentators who distance themselves from the truth to promote their agenda. Fox newsroom personnel are guilty, too. Fox Washington managing editor Bill Sammon has been caught bragging about spreading lies about Barack Obama, for just one example.

Despite my enthusiasm for Rolling Stone’s piece, one article now and then won’t cut it. Fox News broadcasts around the clock. An effective industry effort against the organization must hit it every day. Traditional fact-checking efforts and media criticism sites aren’t enough, either. There’s a huge difference between a news organization that spreads false reports by mistake and one, like Fox, that spreads it by design. The intent behind Fox’s mendacity is a bigger story than even the lies themselves.

Okay, I sense the pushback. Many traditional journalists are uneasy with such advocacy. But advocacy is an essential part of journalism – if we’re not pushing to teach, to engage and to motivate with our reporting, then what’s the use of writing it?

I won’t criticize Fox News for its advocacy, or even for its partisanship. I think both fine for news organizations. Newspapers for generations have employed crusading editorial writers and op-ed columnists. My problems with Fox News are its lying and its bigotry. (Check the Rolling Stone piece for more on Ailes and his stance on “the gays.”)

We need advocacy – advocacy for the world view that evidence matters, that it can’t be brushed aside it if challenges a desired ideology, and that it shouldn’t be selectively molded to fit that ideology. We need advocacy against granting public influence to voices that promote ideology over evidence and the protection of powerful friends over spreading the truth.

We need more journalists who will follow the lead of Jon Stewart, and mock Fox News for its hypocrisy, attack it for its lies, and report the truth of its motivations.

More importantly, we need journalists who can engage Fox News’ viewers and fans, and show them how Fox’s “reporting” is hurting them, their incomes, their jobs, their communities and their security.

Ultimately, few of our readers care if Fox News doesn’t meet our professional standards as journalists. But do care about their jobs, their families and their communities. Fox New warps that concern, twisting it to motivate people to support Fox’s agenda of phantom menaces. If more people saw how what Roger Ailes wants for America was hurting them, support for Fox would drop and support for more accurate journalism, in aggregate, might rise.

That’s the business opportunity for journalists willing to stand up to Fox News. As popular as the news channel might be, many Americans are sick of Fox News’ lies, and frustrated with the rest of the journalism industry for not doing more to counteract Fox. Inspire that audience with a strong stand for truth – and a strong stand for the public’s interest – and you might be able to capture some of that audience for yourself.