Is Journalism a Form of Activism?

It’s time to take another look at the definition of activism and where journalism fits in.

Portrait of journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells, 1920. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Danielle Tcholakian | Longreads | March 2018 | 17 minutes (4,071 words)

Last weekend, as March For Our Lives protests took place all across the country, the student co-editor-in-chief of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School newspaper said on the CNN show “Reliable Sources” that journalism is a form of activism.

I was not surprised to see her quickly criticized on Twitter. Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal tweeted that the belief the student espoused is what’s “killing trust in our profession,” adding in a second tweet that the mentality the student shared “is more common among younger journalists.”

But I was surprised to see how many journalists came to the students’ defense, agreeing that journalism is a form of activism. They were highly respected, solid, investigative journalists. Los Angeles Times writer Matt Pearce asked, “Does anybody think that even the fairest and most diligent of investigative reporters wrote their horrifying stories hoping that nothing would change?” The Washington Post‘s Wesley Lowery asserted, “Even beyond big, long investigations, journalists perform acts of activism every day. Any good journalist is an activist for truth, in favor of transparency, on the behalf of accountability. It is our literal job to pressure powerful people and institutions via our questions.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine and arguably one of the greatest living reporters today, quoted Lowery’s tweet, agreeing with it.

Lowery’s tweet resonated with me, too. Truth, transparency, accountability — these are all words I’m comfortable with. The pursuit of truth can certainly feel like an activist endeavor under a presidential administration that lies habitually.

Still, I was cringing at the word “activism.” I have for a long time, too. Years ago, talking with a mentor in this industry, I made a face as I uttered the phrase “activist journalism.” I said I’d never want to do that; I was a news reporter.

But my mentor just smiled and when I asked why, he said, “You are an activist journalist.” Well, I never. I insisted I wasn’t, that was nonsense. I was a news reporter. I reported the news. I didn’t insert opinions into things or tell people what to think or argue for a certain side. I gave all the facts and let the chips fall where they may!

But then he asked me what my favorite stories I’d done were. I mentioned the stories that got a deadline extended, preserving the possibility that a new school could be built, and another about non-union Department of Education workers who hadn’t had a raise in years. I knew they probably seemed like small potatoes to some big-shot reporters, but I’d made a difference with them. And then I realized what he meant, and what Pearce’s tweet reminded me: I cared most about stories that got good results for people who needed them.

Still, the word “activist” rankled me. Maybe because it seemed to imply bias, or an agenda that might lead one to obscure the full truth. And as Kraushaar mentioned, trust in journalists seems to be at an all-time low — my main preoccupation over the last few years has been how we reporters can change that perception, if it’s in our power at all.

I started teaching journalism at The New School in January. Almost all of my students are women, and many are women of color. We’ve discussed the mandate that journalists be unbiased, and whether that’s possible. We’re all human, after all. We’re citizens. We care about our communities, our society. Usually, I tell my students that it’s not possible to have no opinions, but we have a responsibility to report with equanimity. Our main objective needs to be the full and unadulterated truth.

But I don’t deny that this responsibility is much more burdensome to women and queer people and people of color, and of course especially women of color, than it is to straight, cisgender white men. They ask why some news outlets seem to think the word “racist” is biased, and I turn the question back to them. We muddle through it together, often landing on the conclusion that many outlets are still very white and male at the top, and white males may be more sympathetic to people who think the word “racist” is a subjective insult, rather than an objective characterization. The students argue that both-sides-ism is a bias in itself; a bias held by people who have the privilege to feel unharmed by racism, sexism, and targeted hatred and discrimination. Both-sides-ism often manifests as facts presented alongside opinion as though both hold the same weight. “A majority of scientists say climate change is a pressing concern, supported by x number of studies, but some people think it’s not true.” Why are both of those sides given equal weight? These are good, valuable points and questions.

And now: Confession time. One of the things Pearce tweeted that got a lot of heat, and which I initially balked at as well, was about how we as journalists choose what we want people to know. This is clearly true — we generally decide what stories we pursue, what quotes do and don’t make it in, and so on. But I want to believe we do this judiciously, not with any agenda beyond what’s a good story, and what quotes and information make the story the strongest it can be. And yet: I wasn’t surprised by the Parkland student’s comment on TV. Why? Because I heard it from her journalism teacher on the phone last week, while reporting out my last column. Melissa Falkowski had told me that she saw journalism as “its own form of activism and its own form of therapy.” In my column, I only included the part about therapy.

I was not comfortable making that decision, even as I did it. A part of me is ashamed, confessing it. Was that bad journalism? Maybe, by some people’s standards. But another part of me stands by it. One of the things I talk to my students about is our obligation to our sources. That obligation can vary, depending on the source. But to me, Melissa was a particularly vulnerable source, and she was trusting me. I was concerned about how people might react to that quote, and given all she’s been through the last month or so, since the shooting in the school where she works, I didn’t want to produce a reason that people might attack her. Humanity and empathy can sometimes feel like weaknesses in journalism, but I believe — and Melissa agreed, when we spoke last week — that they are absolutely strengths. The best journalism moves people, makes people feel things. The best journalists are able to get people to open up to them, to trust them. You can’t do that without humanity and empathy.

I also realize now I could have included Melissa’s full quote with context (though I maintain that it wasn’t as relevant to the purpose of that column as the other quotes I did include). Melissa and her student on CNN aren’t talking about their journalism being activism in a vacuum. They are watching their peers — other MSD students and teachers — take part in a political movement with the goal of having something positive come from the terrible thing that happened at their school on Feb. 14. Likewise, Melissa and her students are practicing journalism with the goal of doing something positive. Both political activism and journalism are ways these students and teachers are trying to heal from a horrific trauma, by doing something productive and positive.

I asked on Twitter what people thought of this debate, whether journalism is activism. One woman reporter, who asked not to be named, said it can’t be. “In journalism, you have to bring attention to things that might not help the ends of whatever you might want to happen. You can’t serve those ends. You have to serve the end of telling the true, full story.”

Victoria Chamberlin, a journalism grad student at Georgetown, said she didn’t believe journalism should be activism, but that it can and should inspire activism.

And it does, of course. On Twitter on Thursday, Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox wrote of how his colleague Terrence McCoy’s series on disability prompted real change, because it moved people who had political power to take action.

I asked Pearce and some of the other people who tweeted about this debate, as well as a few other journalists and media figures, to weigh in. All of their input seems to point to a similar conclusion, albeit in different ways: Journalism is “activist,” insofar as it can and often seeks to provoke some kind of response.

Here are some of their responses, occasionally edited for space and clarity.

Jack Shafer, POLITICO media columnist

Shafer sent me a link to a piece he wrote for Reuters in 2013 arguing that we need “partisan journalism,” grouping today’s activist journalists — namely Glenn Greenwald — alongside Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary War era writer of “Common Sense.” “American journalism began in earnest as a rebellion against the state, and just about the only people asking if its practitioners belonged in jail were those beholden to the British overlords,” Shafer wrote. “I care less about where a journalist is coming from than to where his journalism takes me.” But Shafer was also careful to still place a premium on truth:

My paean to activist and partisan journalism does not include the output of the columnists and other hacks who arrange their copy to please their Democratic or Republican Party patrons. (You know who you are.)

Nor do I favor the partisan journalists who insult reader intelligence by cherry-picking the evidence, debate-club style, to win the day for their comrades. Read a few of the articles I cite above and then ask yourself: Where would we be without our partisan journalists?

Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times reporter

“Many of my coworkers probably disagree with me on this, but I do believe journalism is a form of activism. We work in the public interest, but we aren’t agents of the government. Nobody elected us. We observe, but we also prod and inquire. We sue when government officials don’t give us records; newspapers’ past Supreme Court cases have won important victories for Americans’ First Amendment rights. We publish investigations when we discover wrongdoing, and we are proud of the improvements those investigations bring to the lives of millions of people. We will refuse judges’ orders and go to jail to protect important sources. We unionize to protect ourselves when we fear for our work. All that sounds like activism to me, even if journalists think the word carries a stigma.

I guess the other controversial part of my tweet was about ‘choosing what you want people to know’ – obviously, I’m not talking about ignoring inconvenient facts or creating propaganda. It’s an acknowledgment that, as a profession, we have a limited number of journalists to assign, limited time to report, and limited words we can fit into stories. So we have to choose what we’re going to tell people. That’s subjectivity. Those decisions require an ideological framework. Typically, that unspoken framework is pro-democracy, pro-transparency and pro-accuracy. Which is great! But what critics will tell you is this framework also usually reflects the generally white, generally college-educated, generally urban and generally liberal people who decide what is news and what isn’t. Many of journalism’s problems start there.”

I asked Pearce if he could elaborate on why activism carries that stigma for reporters and, with regard to our subjective news judgment, whether it is less “activist” or “problematic” if the judgment is shaped by business interests (i.e. “x story will get more pageviews than y story, so let’s go with x story”).

“I think people think ‘activist’ carries a stigma because the people we call ‘activists’ tend to be, by their nature, outsiders who challenge the status quo – ‘controversial’ ‘agitators.’ At least until they win. Then they become historical figures.

And yes – people don’t think it’s ‘weird’ that news organizations have a bias toward stories that will get a lot of web traffic. Partially that’s because we can say, hey, that’s what our audience wants to know about, and we’re here to serve our audience. We’re also here to make money, or else we won’t exist anymore. I guess most people are fine with that. Though obviously you see more and more people on the left who are critical of the for-profit news outlets because they think the profit motive compromises the journalism. (That said, I have never had an editor or owner interfere with my work.)

Personally – and this is my biased personal viewpoint! — I think the greatest threat to journalism right now is companies like Alden Capital, which drains profits out of its Digital First Media newsrooms and slashes local journalism jobs with no hope of reinvestment. If journalists don’t become activists to defend their own jobs and scrutinize their ownership – like we did at the L.A. Times, where we unionized, and later discovered Tronc reportedly wanted to slash 20% of our staff — they may not have jobs at all in five years.”

Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post columnist

“Journalists have the ability — in fact, the sacred responsibility — to change society for the better, especially for those who are vulnerable or lack a powerful voice of their own. We fulfill that role most effectively by shining a searchlight, by digging for truth, and by relating what we’ve found. And then by shining brighter, digging deeper, and telling more compellingly.

Is a watchdog an activist? If you’re, say, a child home alone and there’s a predator approaching, you’d be likely to think so.”

Karen Ho, Columbia Journalism Review

Ho, whose name on Twitter is “White Guy Confidence,” is one of the people whose tweets first brought this discussion to my attention. We spoke by phone while she was in Canada with her mother.

She acknowledged that she often gets angry (and tweets) about claims that reporters must be “objective” in order to do their jobs properly because women and people of color like herself “have never had the ability to be objective” simply by virtue of their experiences and what is at stake for them in their daily lives.

“If you’re a female journalist and you’re reporting on Roe v. Wade or abortion access, that is something that affects you personally,” she said. “You don’t have ‘the view from nowhere.’ The privilege of the view from nowhere was set up by white men.”

But Ho said that doesn’t mean ignoring facts or being selective.

“If I’m going to make an argument, I’m always going to back it up with studies. I think that’s why the Harvard Business Review is so important. I’m not just making an argument; I’m making an argument that’s backed up by research. There’s a gut feeling, and then there’s a gut feeling that’s backed up by research and studies. We actually have measurable reports.”

She pointed to a Texas Tribune report on women dying or experiencing complications in childbirth published earlier this year, by a black woman reporter named Marissa Evans. Outcomes are even worse for black women.

“She very carefully explained politics and policy, but there is no ‘other side’ to that,” Ho said. “[Evans] is inherently a black woman. If she’s considering having kids or she has black friends having kids, this is extremely personal. We don’t get to separate ourselves from these things.”

She agreed with Pearce and Kraushaar that there is a different generational or “millennial” approach. “The millennial and Gen X way is ‘here are my biases, here is my expertise, here is my reporting.”

Then she asked me a question I hadn’t considered before. What is the difference between a bias and expertise?

In a previous newsroom she worked in, there were a few people who had pilots’ licenses. When a plane crash happened, those people were looked to as experts. Similarly, newsrooms seek to hire people with military experience, seeing that as expertise as opposed to bias. Many news outlets sent reporters to cover Hurricane Maria who were either Puerto Rican or had lived in Puerto Rico. Ho believes she’s a better business reporter because she worked in banking for three and a half years.

So why do we consider some lived experiences — being a woman, being a person of color, being queer, having had an abortion — biases, and others expertise?

I speculated that maybe it has to do with emotion, lived experiences that we have emotions about or from. But Ho pointed out that journalism has always been intertwined with feelings.

“The thing about feelings is, the anecdotal lede is all about inciting a feeling. Foreign correspondence relies on emotions: What is the emotion of protest, of war, of a refugee crisis, of unfair elections, of a foreign company coming in and desecrating a landscape of a population in search of resources? The best journalism has always incited a lot of emotion.”

She’s right, in my opinion. And she also made me think about what Matt Pearce said about the power of our judgment. Several news outlets published a story recently with some variation of the headline. “U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan has been deported.” Is this activist? Outlets who agree with deportation might have led with the man’s 2010 felony drug conviction, the reason for his deportation.

It also brought to mind something that Ho had said earlier in our conversation about calls for objectivity: “It’s always interesting to analyze who is saying it and who is arguing back.” I couldn’t deny that many people touting “objectivity” seemed to be people comfortable with the status quo (largely white men) while those pushing back were mostly people of color and women.

Marissa Evans, Texas Tribune health/human services policy reporter

Marissa gave me some background on her great maternal mortality investigation that Ho had referenced. First, some background on that story:

“When I was interviewing for my job at The Texas Tribune in summer 2016 one of the issues I told Emily Ramshaw I wanted to focus on was Texas’ rising maternal mortality rate. The state report had just come out a month ago and for some reason it bothered me. The kind of bothering that made me read all of the Tribune’s coverage thus far at that point and start searching on Google for answers. It bothered me that there was this rise in women dying from pregnancy complications and it particularly bothered me that black women were the ones most likely to die. The big story to me was: A modern, first world country, with health and tech innovation and this is happening? How did we get here? Going into the legislative session I thought this would be a focus but it really wasn’t. My first realization of this was when the governor, lieutenant governor and Speaker of the House didn’t mention maternal mortality in their addresses to the legislature. That was when I knew I needed to go deeper on this. When the session ended I told my editors I wanted to look at the systemic issues that are behind Texas’ maternal mortality rate and that’s how Dangerous Deliveries came to fruition.

“It’s easy to simplify maternal deaths as being caused by sudden issues like postpartum eclampsia or drug overdoses. These are factors but there’s other things beneath the surface, and that’s what we aimed to get at with Dangerous Deliveries. Whenever I was asked during interviews about the project why are black women dying, I would always without fail mention the importance of looking at unconscious bias, microagressions and systemic racism in healthcare that may deter black women from seeking care or getting the best care possible. People often hoped I would find the magic silver bullet but there’s so many factors when it comes to maternal deaths in Texas like health insurance status, where women live, access to health providers and more. For this project, there was some worry about what would people do after the project runs. It’s fulfilling to do a longform story but how do we keep this conversation going? How do we help Texas women who are pregnant right now? That’s why we made a prenatal/postpartum questionnaire and a resource guide for expectant moms. The legislature doesn’t meet again until 2019 but we’re watching to see if with this project and the stories we have coming down the pipeline what actions they’ll take. Right now, almost three months after the project ran, it’s humbling to know how many people have read the series and had it resonate with them.”

Evans on journalism-as-activism:

“Journalism is a form of activism in the sense that journalists aren’t out with protestors holding signs, but we’re hoping with every story we bring to the forefront people will do something with the information they have. I want my journalism to be of public service and for me that includes finding stories that give people a new perspective about policies and people around them. But with that public service I want to help people understand information that hopefully compels, appalls, or shocks them to take action. It’s not going to happen every story but I’m always humbled when I see people tweeting my stories and tagging their representatives or members of Congress to “do something” about the issue.

“That’s also why the idea of giving ‘voice to the voiceless’ now doesn’t resonate with me like it did when I started out in journalism. Were those people ‘voiceless’ or were we just not listening to them that well before?

“It’s a difficult moment to be a journalist, but it’s especially difficult to be a black female journalist. It’s hard to constantly feel like your community is always in a state of despair and there’s little you can do about it. There’s some hopeful stories that emerge that makes me think ‘we’re going to be all right’ but the news cycle oftentimes says otherwise. It’s also hard to always read about the ways society has failed multiple generations of black women in various facets of life physically, emotionally, mentally, socially and politically. Writing (and tweeting) about black women is in many respects my way of shouting that black women are worthy of decency and human rights.”

Lindsay Gellman, freelance reporter (and Longreads contributor)

Gellman recently wrote for Longreads about cancer clinics in Germany that are marketing care to the seriously ill at exorbitant prices — a piece I felt fell squarely in the category of those stories we do because we are trying to expose something that ought to be changed. So I emailed her for her input:

“It’s my general view that journalists — and particularly reporters (as opposed to, say, opinion columnists) — ought to refrain from public activism.

“Personally, I draw a distinction between using reporting tools to uncover facts, analyze patterns, and publicize those findings (journalism) and publicly advocating for particular political, legal, social, or other change based on those findings (activism).

“That distinction has to remain sharp, I feel, for journalists as a group to maintain credibility. It can be frustrating, at times, to circumscribe one’s work in this way — we are, after all, human beings.

“And to be clear, I feel that engaging in private civic acts, like voting, is not only permissible, but crucial.

“But I believe that journalists’ refraining from public activism serves the larger purpose of reinforcing our collective integrity as practitioners, which in turn better allows us to do our jobs.”

Maria Bustillos, editor of the forthcoming Popula.com

“All speech has a political dimension, if only one that cosigns the status quo through its failure to question or challenge. All forms of not playing are playing.”

Jamil Smith, Rolling Stone Senior Writer

“Journalism is not merely about informing the public, but helping them think critically about the world. Unfortunately, throughout American history and that of many other nations, that has been a revolutionary act, and remains so. This is not an effort to self-aggrandize; I value my professional separation from the work of those on the ground organizing for societal change. However, the most power that a journalist or media organization has is choosing the stories to cover and how to cover them. Journalists work to illuminate facts and truths about the world, many of which are uncomfortable for those in power. Reporting has changed legislation, booted the corrupt, and shone light on injustice throughout the world. That may not be ‘activism’ in our common perception of the word, but the effect can be similar.”

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Danielle Tcholakian is a columnist for Longreads.