Thoughts on activist journalism

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Today’s topic in my Journalism Ethics graduate class reviewed activist journalism, and two assigned readings stood out to me as particularly intriguing, as well as thought-provoking. 

In her academic article, “From Journalism of Activism Towards Journalism of Accountability,” Nel Ruigrok discusses the connotations of activist journalism. Ruigrok’s main contention centers on the importance of accountability over activism in the news. She posits that reporters should not begin writing a story with an activist mindset – that they should investigate situations sans a predetermined conclusion. She emphasizes that proof and accountability usurps well-intentioned activist writers. In other words, they should fairly report the truth, without bias and while including all sides to a story, despite any personal feelings they may have.

Ruigrok argues a noble point, but I doubt that simply wishing to not have an opinion makes it so. As human beings, journalists innately form viewpoints, even on the subjects they write about. The distinction lies, not so much in the absence of an opinion, but in keeping it to oneself. Journalism requires writers to keep a certain emotional distance in their stories – to refrain from projecting their own thoughts and personalities onto them.

However, as my colleague Elizabeth Manning pointed out today, the simple act of choosing to write a certain story can in itself be a type of activism. For instance, Manning chose food insecurity as the topic for her master’s project at the University of Alabama. Though she is unbiased in her reporting on food insecurity, she picked this topic because she felt that it is an important community issue. Moreover, she feels that something should be done to address this issue. Even her story subject contains a certain amount of activist intention.

Bob Steele’s CNN article, “The dangers of activist-driven journalism,” echos Ruigrok’s work. He poses that journalists hold a unique and essential role in serving the public in their positions as neutral observers. In the article, he asserts, “I’m not arguing for a false sense of ‘objectivity.’ Rather, independence is about commitment to professional duty that serves society rather than one’s own beliefs and self-interest.” The journalist’s obligation is to report objectively. Yet, as stated above, it’s not always easy to shun an activist-like approach when faced with world issues like homelessness, child hunger, war, genocide, etc. The best any journalist can do, however, is to actively project an objective mindset.

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