Journalism and advocacy 101

Posted by LVTeodoro | Posted in Luis V. Teodoro | Posted on 10-07-2012

Most journalists would argue that there is no room for advocacy in journalism. But no journalist can claim without lying that he/she is unconcerned with the issues that confront his/her community, whether it be the world, his/her country, or the municipality of his/her birth and/or residence. His/her concern—or at least his/her interest—is usually evident in the way he/she chooses which events to report on, in the emphasis he/she gives certain aspects of that event, and in the way he/she exercises the selectivity inherent in reporting.

Despite what should be a self-evident fact, however, many reporters and editors shun any engagement with their respective communities beyond reporting its problems. Instead of meaningful engagement, the result is distance, from where the journalist—into whose head both the schools as well as older practitioners have drummed the idea of neutrality and “objectivity” in the sense of non-involvement—reports on events observed without being part of them.

And yet both engagement in the affairs of the community and neutrality are possible, if we define neutrality as signifying that respect for the facts and the commitment to truth-telling inherent in the primary responsibility of the journalistic enterprise.

A conflict between reporting the truth on the one hand and advocacy and engagement on the other arises only when the reporter distorts the news, or withholds essential information for the sake of proving his/her advocacy correct. One’s advocacy or engagement in the community, rather than a basis for false reporting, should on the contrary be tested each time the reporter generates information and writes a story.

What this means is that the journalist commits no violence to the responsibility of truth-telling if, after exposing a bad situation, or identifying and describing a problem as a newsworthy subject, his/her reporting also suggests what the community can do about it on the basis of his/her informed understanding of that problem.

The last imperative, understanding, is crucial. Knowledge is what separates bias from advocacy. An advocacy cannot be based on absence of knowledge, on impulse, prejudice, or personal and familial interest—the many factors that the journalist inevitably brings to the practice of journalism. Every journalist, it is obvious to serious observers of the press and the media, has an advocacy, or what passes for one. But there is a difference between “advocacy” based on ignorance and prejudice—in which case it isn’t advocacy but bias—and advocacy based on knowledge.

That is why journalists must internalize not only the need for research on the subjects they must report on, but also the virtues of educating themselves, now as well as later, and for life, in the political, economic, social, cultural, environmental, and other issues that confront society and the individual men and women in it. Knowledge enough for journalists to help educate others is explicitly demanded by the standards of news writing, which in addition to accuracy include the principle of putting events in context, whether through a sentence or two providing readers background information, or via comprehensive articles meant to empower readers by helping them understand an event as part of a larger reality.

It is in this sense that every event must be reported as if, to paraphrase the late Nick Joaquin, it were the parting of the Red Sea or the splitting of the atom. In every instance the reporter must measure events against his/her own knowledge of history, policy, politics, culture and society, to report it accurately and fairly. Only from this understanding can authentic advocacy and passion arise, because it alone can arm the reporter with the sense that despite the violence and brutality, and the misery and injustices of the present, journalists must uphold the human values and aspirations of dignity and freedom, the right to live in peace and without fear, and to plan for a better future.

It will not do, as one American editor (Deni Elliott, “Rallying ‘Round the Flag,” Fineline, vol. 3, no.3, pp. 2-3, March 1991) warns, to surrender to patriotic impulses in reporting war, for example, and to support it merely because one is a citizen of one of the countries engaged in it, as indeed too many US journalists did during the first Gulf War, instead of being critical and reporting what happened without prematurely supporting their government. Thirteen years later, before the and during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the same support  meant aiding and abetting a war of aggression that caused thousands of civilian deaths and the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure in furtherance of US strategic and economic interests.

If that kind of support, as manifest in their reports, amounts to bias, it is because bias occurs not only when journalists report or emphasize only those details favorable to their views, or when they source information from only equally biased sources. It can also appear in such subtle forms as the use of carefully chosen nouns and adjectives.

Elliot in fact asks, Why did Time magazine describe Iraq’s way of war in 1990 as “weird”, while that of the US’ was “strategic”? Why did US and global media applaud Israel for showing “restraint” while Iraq’s lack of retaliation during the same war was described as “confused”?

And why, we might ask from another perspective, are Palestinian fighters regularly described as “gunmen” while the Israeli troops bulldozing homes in Gaza are given the honor of being described as “soldiers”? Or why are US soldiers in Iraq “Coalition troops” while members of the Iraqi resistance groups are “insurgents” and “terrorists”?

Inter Press Service warns reporters in its stylebook not to use “emotionally-loaded” words. But every one of the above words does have a meaning. The challenge is to prove through facts that they do apply to the persons, groups, or entire countries being described. Even more critically, however, the challenge is to determine the justice, wisdom and rationality of wars and elections, of population policy and constitutional amendments and of other issues and events against the reporter’s accumulated knowledge, and from there proceed to support the changes that would make human life a little better and societies more just and humane.

Advocacy is not contradictory to the commitment to the facts, the reporting of which, no matter how difficult, is to begin with the reporter’s principal responsibility. Given that responsibility, the traditional news values of human interest and prominence must be taught as conventional wisdom about which practitioners must be critical.

Entertaining readers via reports of the bizarre and the latest event involving Kris Aquino does sell newspapers and boost ratings. But it also diverts readers’ and viewers’ attention from the issues and events that affect their lives, and very often denies ordinary men and women who may have something to say access to the news pages, thus helping keep things the way they are.  Stories about the rich and the famous, or about the woman who gave birth to a fish may be interesting and even amusing, but they change nothing because they empower no one.

  • mightaswellshootme

    Things change when observed. People change their behavior when aware of being watched. Journalism is advocacy and that is the agenda.Journalists love to play with Schrödinger’s cat.