Media, Top Stories

Journalism Is Not Activism

Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936)

In 1893, Finley Peter Dunne, a journalist-turned-humorist at the Chicago Evening Post, introduced Martin J. Dooley to the people of Chicago. Mr. Dooley, as he was best known, was a thick-accented bartender from Ireland who owned a tavern in the Bridgeport neighborhood. Mr. Dooley became popular among Chicagoans for his rich satire of politics and society. Of course, Mr. Dooley wasn’t real. He was a fictional character created by Dunne. His work included countless sketches and wide-ranging commentary, but he may be best known for his biting one-liner on newspapers, since reclaimed by journalists as central to the profession’s creed: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

The original quote is from Observations by Mr. Dooley, one of several works Dunne produced as the character, in which Dunne specifically satirizes the press’s penchant for trial-by-media. He presented Mr. Dooley through Irish dialect pieces, hence the diction, so the “affliction” quote below has been lightly edited for comprehension:

When anything was wrote about a man ’twas put this way: ‘We understand on good authority that…is on trial before Judge G. on an accusation of larceny. ‘But we don’t think it’s true.’ Nowadays, the larceny is discovered by a newspaper. The lead pipe is dug up your backyard by a reporter who knew it was there because he helped you bury it. A man knocks at your door early one mornin’ an’ you answer in your nighty. ‘In name of the law, I arrest you,’ says the man seizin’ you by the throat. ‘Who are you?’ you cry. ‘I’m a reporter for The Daily Slooth,’ says he. ‘Photographer, do your duty!” You’re hauled off in the circulation wagon to the newspaper office where a confession is ready for you to sign; you’re tried by a jury of the staff, sentenced by the editor-in-chief, and at ten o’clock Friday the fatal thrap is sprung by the fatal thrapper of the family journal. The newspaper does evrything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead and roasts them aftherward.

That journalists of all stripes have touted a scathing critique of their profession and repurposed it as a mission statement is a textbook definition of irony that belongs on a Roman pedestal behind bulletproof glass in the Smithsonian. What is most vexing about the modern interpretation of Dunne’s quote is that its new meaning is implied to be synonymous with dispassionately seeking truth, which it necessarily is not.

More than afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, what requires consideration is who gets to determine who the afflicted and comforted are. The greater threat to the institutional press is less the lie set against the backdrop of reality, but rather the gradient of the myth that, as John F. Kennedy observed, provides “the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” It’s the dogged interrogation of claims that contradict one’s values, and a corresponding acceptance of those that reinforce them. It’s the heightened scrutiny of ideological rivals that makes ‘analysis’ read more like a rebuttal. It’s the routine conflation of disparate outcomes with disparate treatment. It’s the astroturf controversy cloaked in the dress of journalism that will ultimately lose the profession far more esteem than a lie that can be easily cleaved from the rest of an otherwise reputable herd.

This past spring, a debate erupted among journalists that reminded me of Dunne’s quote. During a segment on CNN’s Reliable Sources, host Brian Stelter asked Rebecca Schneid, an editor at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student newspaper, whether she saw a difference between journalism and activism. Schneid responded:

I think that for me, the purpose of journalism is to raise the voices of people that maybe don’t have a voice…and so I think that in its own right journalism is a form of activism…Journalists can use the facts to describe an issue that plagues society…It’s journalists who present these facts and elevate the voices of the oppressed that allow for actual change to occur.

That exchange came around the same time Stelter, by his own on-air admission, neglected to call out multiple falsehoods made by MSD student activist David Hogg. Stelter also justified the disproportionate coverage in favor of gun control activists stating that it was reflective of the consensus of those students. Reasonable people can debate that justification. If, however, an editorial decision is taken to allot disproportionate coverage to any viewpoint then, as a journalist, Stelter should fully exercise the duties of his profession, or else admit that he is simply advancing a political agenda. It is disingenuous for Stelter, a media expert representing a network that has positioned itself as an arbiter of truth, to give a participant in a story both 95 percent of the media coverage while shielding them from scrutiny and accountability.

As for Schneid’s view, I’m sympathetic to her impulse but there is an overlooked distinction between journalism and activism. Journalism is a means-driven profession. The quality of a journalist’s final copy is determined by the integrity and care with which it is produced. This includes an adherence to a set of ethics and fairness guidelines and a drive to thoroughly research claims and accurately articulate a subject’s experiences and worldview.

Activism is ends-centric. Activists pursue a particular political objective and desired outcome. They do not have to abide by centralized codes of ethics, because their means are justified by the perceived nobility of their ends. Activist journalists begin with their own worldview and collect evidence that supports it. Schneid’s idea of elevating “the voices of the oppressed” is not the purpose of journalism. However, if journalists do their jobs fairly there is a high probability those voices will be a feature of any journalism worth its salt.

Every decent person who understands why America has a constitutionally protected press wants to see the press succeed. As the only unregulated private sector industry in America, the free press’s entire existence is based on afflicting the single most comforted institution throughout human history: centralized authority. Afflicting and comforting anyone else is secondary. The truth—and a genuine commitment to its pursuit—must take precedence, even when it runs contrary to the interests of whoever is deemed afflicted or comforted. Journalism humbles itself in finding truth in a complex world. Activism pursues its ends with righteous certainty. Journalism is the work of describing and understanding reality; activism is the work of refashioning it. Journalists act as impediments to the acquisition of power; activists pursue power.

There are two major challenges the press faces in answering questions about how it seeks truth, both of which are complicated by the economic transition we are amidst.

First is the business problem. Most digital media today are hyper-dependent on an ad-based business model that journalists recognize as the greatest challenge the industry faces, chiefly because of its meager pay and perverse incentive structure. Mainstream participation in social media and the ubiquity of smartphones have turned the Internet into a human appendage. Until recently, paralyzingly instant exposure to data—and ads—disincentivized the contemplation of alternative digital business models. This is especially the case when the content is algorithmically generated to keep people within their own political universes.

At the same time, an increasingly globalized and automated world has, by several measurements, enhanced the standard of living for billions of people but not for everyone. It wasn’t until 2016 that it occurred to Western political establishments that the cost-benefit calculus of this better world wasn’t an absolute gain but rather a trade-off. Some paid more for it than others, and this has given rise to authoritarian populism across the West; an ideology based on one form of identity-based blame-shifting or another whether on the basis of race, class, or now, gender.

The second problem is the political and cultural homogeneity of the media class. Americans have noticed. 64 percent believe the press favors Democrats over Republicans. The coverage of the 2016 campaign and its result proved that armchair conservative claims of the mythical ‘liberal media’ turned out to be real and getting worse. But the strongest evidence of a progressive media is the mere existence of what is explicitly referred to as ‘conservative media.’

While Fox News has been around for over 20 years, and outlets like National Review much longer, sites likes Breitbart, the Daily Wire, and the Daily Caller only launched within the last decade. They rapidly amassed loyal followings because they met a demand and tapped a market that most mainstream digital media had ignored, particularly compared to progressive, tech-savvy, venture capital-backed, conceptually indistinguishable digital outlets like Vox, Vice, Buzzfeed, Mic, Group Nine Media, and the entire gamut of the Gizmodo Media Group. The difference is that ‘conservative’ media is accurately labeled, whereas the same standards used to detect ideological bias are not applied to progressive or centrist outlets, which consider themselves to be neutral analysts by their own standards. No, a press dominated by progressive sensibilities aren’t colluding to tilt editorial in favor of Democrats. But, because the profession is comprised of the like-minded, the script frequently writes itself.

Of course reporters have biases, but that is barely the problem. Our life experiences that develop our blindspots are important because they lend urgency to covering particular stories. The goal shouldn’t be to remove bias (whatever that means) but to increase different variants of bias within newsrooms. When biases are not countered vigorously, facts get misrepresented, data gets cherry-picked, and ledes get buried. The first step to pursuing truth is breaking motivated reasoning and confirmation bias by institutionalizing disconfirmation through viewpoint diversity.

Journalists have a tough job. It’s not a glorious profession but, if done well, it can be a noble one. A fair share of criticism of the press fails to fully consider the circumstances—and even threats—under which journalists work. It is also true that the limitless discretion and right of a free press—and the lack of any organized institutional check on it—comes with an immense responsibility to continuously work to earn the public’s trust and never to expect it or take it for granted. The industry owes its existence to those who have held power to account in the past. In the present and future, it must continue to scrutinize those who acquire and consolidate power in order to impose their own will on free people, almost always in the name of the best of intentions.

Between an archaic business model and ideological divisions alone, the challenges the press faces today seem insurmountable. For now, readers and fair-minded journalists alike can renew their commitment to the primacy of truth without viewing the most inconvenient facts as existential threats to truth itself.


Robert Showah is a writer and founder of Master Theory. He is based in Austin, Texas.


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  2. derek says

    The Dunne quote is describing a priesthood. At the time it was written journalists were in general people who couldn’t do anything else with the attendant bad attitudes and dissipation. Which kept a lid on the sanctimonious perfidy that characterize the current offerings.

    I have been wondering why, from a rather obstreperous group generally, the almost complete obedience to what i call the eleventh commandment; Thou Shall Not Criticize a Bureaucrat. A line in this article describes journalism as almost completely unregulated is likely one reason. Bureaucrats are almost always a positive; a source of information about the people you want dirt on, but otherwise benign. That is not the experience of anyone else doing things of import.

    Ultimately journalists need to reflect the world that third readers inhabit. That gives them influence as a valid source of information to what is going on. Policy makers need that information even more. They have been failing to do that for a while now. Savvy news consumers have developed strategies to circumvent the blind spots and misinformation in news coverage, a Pravda like reading between the lines.

  3. ga gamba says

    In 1996 the Society of Professional Journalists updated its Code of Ethics to unleash the horde of activist journalists upon us. Search for “the truth” became simply truth, which gave rise to the essays and punditry mentioning “my truth,” “her truth,” “their truth,” etc. Even worse, it released journalists from their duty to be objective. The argument went that journalist have their biases, these may never be overcome, and, when focussed correctly, as in “speaking truth to power”, biases were OK. This served the good, which is kind of strange since there was no longer the truth.

    Ridding journalists of the obligation to be objective may seem to make sense if you believe that true objectivity may never be attained. Though I don’t dispute people have their biases, a journalist seeking objectivity, even when imperfect, not only provided a more complete account of the issue, the journalist him/herself improved his/her own understanding which lead to reducing their own blind spots, asking better questions and improved bullshit detection. and expanding the number of sources to question. Too often I find today it’s the biased talking to their ideological cohorts and asking softball questions. “Defend the team” and “practice good allyship” seem to be the modus operandi. Fail to do so and there are howls of protest accompanied by accusations of assorted ‘isms” and “obias”. Simply put, the requirement of objectivity improved the journalist and therefore journalism; the reporter became more knowledgable of all the different points of view.

    “Speaking truth to power” is troubling when how “power” is defined and who it excludes. Make no mistake, abusive people come in all the glorious flavours of celebrated diversity, but when only certain flavours are deemed to be powerful, the abusive excluded are free to continue on their merry way. We’ve seen numerous examples of this. For example, the reporting of domestic abuse has overwhelming been about male perpetrators, yet academic research find females actually instigate about 40% of domestic violence and the most violent domestic partnerships are between lesbian couples. These stories are largely omitted from public life and discussion. Why? Because women, especially lesbians, are placed in the powerless categories. Further, activist journalists don’t want to give space to narratives counter to those they’ve spent years crafting. It makes them appear to be ill-informed or liars. An even greater outrage was how vulnerable teenage girls were deemed to have more power than South Asian Muslim adult men who were allowed to rape the girls for decades with little interference. This didn’t happen only in Rotherdam, England but in numerous communities across the land, which indicates it was a systemic problem wherein the institutions of power abrogated their legal duties largely due to fear how the activist press would castigate them. The press still can’t grapple with this crime, preferring euphemism by calling these rapists “grooming gangs”. Make no mistake, they were gang rapists who used grooming as a tool. Speaking truth to power misses a lot. Better to speak truth to abuse.

    In closing I’ll link to an essay written by activist journalist Gaby Hinsliff of The Guardian a week after the New Year’s Eve sex attacks were perpetrated in Cologne, Germany. If you read it don’t neglect to read the BTL comments, which you may sort by recommendations.

    On New Year’s Eve, something happened that I don’t really want to talk about. . . . the attackers are widely described as looking Arab or north African. Which is why, of course, liberals like me are reluctant to talk about it. . . . . Journalism isn’t really journalism when it avoids stories for fear of how some might react.

    “Journalism isn’t really journalism when it avoids stories for fear of how some might react” damns activist journalism. It makes journalists partisan spokespeople.

    • Andy H. says

      When I first began studying journalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, instructors and textbooks both said that journalism was changing away from its pursuit of objective facts to a subjective style. This change allowed journalists to insert their opinions and observations into supposedly “straight news” stories.

      As nearly as I could tell, the change happened–or at least was officially recognized–while I was in undergraduate school. The first journalism classes I took still taught the erstwhile “inverted pyramid” structure that featured hard facts–who, what, when, where, why, how–in lead paragraphs. Later classes taught the present/future “subjective” journalism.

      One journalism professor congratulated me for an assignment: “Your indignation and outrage are what drive the story,” he wrote on my paper, right next to the “A” he’d given me for it. I was glad to get the “A,” of course.

      Nonetheless, I wasn’t proud of my work, as it sullied my idealistic notions of what journalism was supposed to be. That is to say, I believed the deliberate change from objectivity to subjectivity was a bad thing. I thought it removed from journalism its main value: objective fact reporting.

      For all of my dismay, I wasn’t surprised. I attributed the change to (among other social phenomenon) my generation’s (the “baby boomers'”) coming of age in the 1970s. My quintessentially narcissistic generation has always aggressively deified its feelings and shunned objectivity. That characteristic inevitably infested journalism (and even peer-review).

      As I got older, progressed through graduate school, and gained a broader, more historical perspective, I learned that my “journalistic ideals” had been misguided. Even when journalism supposedly pursued “hard facts” and “objectivity,” it’s always been heavily laced with journalists’, editors’, and publishers’ values, beliefs, and opinions. Journalism has never been the font of “truth” it has purported itself to be; believe me, the “alternative facts” claim is entirely sound.

      Still, 50 years ago, objectivity was the standard to which journalism aspired. Yes, journalists, editors, and publishers routinely fell short of that goal, but they still–however ineptly–strived for it. Then my generation came along and disavowed objectivity completely because it got in the way of feelings and opinions.

      Predictably, we now have entire schools of journalism, and professors of journalism, and inevitably, publishers, editors, and journalists who romantically self-aggrandize themselves as revolutionary heroes saving mentally inferior audiences from opposing “world views.”

      But actually–no. We really have publishers, editors, and journalists who’ve been force-fed the cynicism of dog-eat-dog competition: the harsh reality of the “survival of the fittest” in a communication industry stood on its head by technology. As New York Magazine’s survey article shows, their business model is “broken,” and their only desperate, unimaginative fix is corralling audiences by scaring and/or angering them.

      It’s a sad state of affairs, and when I think of the future, I’m glad that I’m not young.

      • Peter from Oz says

        Back in the days of objectivity journalism was a low-status occupation. But of course journalists wanted to make themselves respectable and powerful. So objectivity had to go. Now upper middle class kidults are flocking to the media, because it is now seen as worthy occupation. The problem is that it is also a completely useless job. It adds little value to society because it is no longer objective.

    • Ga Gamba. On point perusal. I was wondering when you were going to show up in the comment section. Nailed it again.

    • Robert Paulson says

      @ga gamba

      Do you know of any good domestic violence studies that corroborate what you’ve said? I’ve also heard it that lesbian couples have high rates of abuse, but I’ve never seen any studies.

      • ga gamba says

        It was this CDC study that garnered a lot of attention, www(dot)cdc(dot)gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_sofindings.pdf



  4. Shenme Shihou says

    I am really pleased how this author can avoid cynicism by stating that “Journalism is not Activism.”

    Of course, the truth of the matter is that journalism is exactly that, and has been for a long time. Walter Duranty was given a Pulitzer for writing up Stalinist propaganda. When it was shown that Duranty was bullshitting and the USSR did, in fact, have a famine and subsequent genocide, the Pulitzer board refused to revoke his prize.

    Duranty started his Soviet work in 1931. We are approaching 100 years of acitivist journalism.

    • Andy H. says

      I agree with you. Especially today–and for better or for worse–journalism very much is activism. What’s more, activism has spread far beyond just journalism. We see activism in almost every industry. It’s in almost every line of work: education, advertising, restaurants and retail, and et cetera, et cetera. Even government bureaucrats–the IRS, the EPA, and even the country’s top law-enforcement organizations–have imbued professional duties with activist beliefs and behavior. Activism even controls intimate, friendship, and family relationships.

      Whether or not this is what we wanted, this is what we have. Personally, I think it’s highly destructive, but those who–in one way or another–profit from it have no intention of letting up. They keep stoking passion, emotion, excitement, never giving up, never compromising, and changing the world. By their nature, these paradigms breed activism and divisions. Taken to their current over-the-top extremes, they will rend a nation’s cohesive social fabric into little bits.

      My current mantra is a couple of lines from W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

      It’s that “passionate intensity.” It’ll get you every time. We’re pedaling it by the boatload, it’s tearing us apart, and those selling it don’t care.

      • Curmudgeon says

        @Andy H.

        “My current mantra is a couple of lines from W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

        It’s that “passionate intensity.” It’ll get you every time. We’re pedaling it by the boatload, it’s tearing us apart, and those selling it don’t care.”

        D’you know, I’ve thought for a very long time – even back to when I was a young idealist – that the world would be a rather better place *for everyone* if people would just pipe down a bit.

  5. Paul Ellis says

    @ga gamba

    Very good, especially your words about ‘how vulnerable teenage girls were deemed to have more power than South Asian Muslim adult men’. This victimhood hierarchy inversion beggars belief. There are a great many people who ought to feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves for this.

  6. defmn says

    One of the best articles on the proper role of journalism I have read. Practiced properly it is a noble profession. As mostly practiced today it falls somewhat short of that goal.

  7. Mark Matis says

    Sure would be a shame if Annapolis were to spread to Media throughout the country. After all, it’s not like they’ve been calling Deplorables subhumans who have no right to live for years now…

  8. Stu says

    This article doesn’t really get at any fundamental issues. Yes, the media is biased, but why is it biased? How do we know that the bias is actually wrong? (One could imagine a media bias toward the truth, while half the nation is biased toward a lie.)

    Institutionalized disconfirmation is good, but how would you plausibly ‘disconfirm’ factual reporting that’s just a little selective of the facts it reports? Fact checking is a boom industry right now. That hasn’t done anything to reign in the bias in the mainstream media, which mostly reports facts which are technically correct.

    • Andy H. says

      The facts might be “technically correct,” but evaluated more comprehensively, they’re technically incorrect and misleading–often dramatically–via (among other techniques) omission and “literary conceit.”

      Re omission: they aren’t “just a little selective of the facts”; they’re very selective. Just one of countless examples: last year, Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey caused extreme flooding in Houston. Most news companies attributed the unusually high amount of rainfall to climate changes that are resulting in rainier storms. However, Harvey wasn’t an unusually rainy storm. The biggest reason it caused such extreme flooding–and most major news companies have omitted this fact–is because it moved so slowly; it parked itself over Houston, didn’t move for several days, and dropped typical tropical-storm rain the entire time.

      Hurricanes Irma and Maria were also extremely slow-moving storms. Their slow movement was the result of anomalies in steering currents that move and guide the storms. Were these anomalies caused by long-term climate change? They have happened before, but news companies have omitted that and, via that omission, have failed to explain what happened.

      Re “literary conceit”: news companies assume the existence of a situation that doesn’t exist to help along the plots of their “narratives.” Just one of numerous examples: the supposed “outrage” being expressed resultant of immigrant children being taken from their parents at the border is based on our supposed belief that children shouldn’t be taken from their parents. Gosh darn it, in this country we don’t tolerate that kind of mistreatment of children because “that’s not who we are.”

      It’s a lie. We take children from their parents all the time. We’ve been doing it for years. We were doing it at the border and all over the country (in other situations) 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200 years ago. We’ve been “detaining” unaccompanied children and “breaking up families,” too. Moreover, various events with far-reaching and unpredictable consequences–industry, technology, social experiments, and et cetera–have resulted in brutal and sometimes downright cruel circumstances forced on children. Like it or not, we DO tolerate it, and It IS “who we are,” but media companies assume the existence of another situation (“we don’t tolerate it; it’s not who we are”) to help along their (self-serving and destructive) plots and “narratives.”

      Furthermore–jumping back to omission again–most news companies have omitted the fact that numbers of emigrants–adults, families, adults with children (not of the same families), and unaccompanied children–suddenly and dramatically increased–200-300 percent, on average–at the U.S./Mexico border during February, March, April, and May. The dramatic increases overwhelmed border facilities and personnel and put immigration and border authorities in a very tough, crisis situation. Faced with this sudden flood of people, what were they supposed to do? More importantly (to me), what caused this sudden massive migration back in the countries from where all these people came?

      I could go on and on about this–example after example after example of news companies cherry picking facts and use of “literary conceit”–because I’m 62 years old, and I’ve been aware of it and watching it happen for over a half century. I could write a lot about news companies’ use of hyperbole too, but . . . enough is enough.

      • Stu says

        Andy, I completely agree with what you’ve said in your comment, but I don’t think it really answers the questions I posed.

        You and I both think that the selective facts reported by the media compose a lie when taken in totality. But how do we know that? We can point out facts that the media have neglected, but when we’re done with that, don’t you think someone else could come in and point out facts we neglected? I’m sure they could. So merely proving that facts were left out doesn’t prove that the media narrative is a lie. If it did, then any conceivable narrative could be proven to be a lie.

        If we want to know for certain that the news media narrative is lying to us, we need to deduce a standard for narratives that doesn’t depend on our a priori narratives.

        I’m publishing an article in which I do that this weekend. I was a little annoyed to see this article, which superficially covers the same topic, come out first.

  9. DBruce says

    The most famous journalist in 1893 was Henry George. By 1893 he was a world famous political economist, best selling author, political candidate and tireless public speaker. He’s be called the first populist.
    George’s journalism most certainly was activism.

  10. DirtyJobsGuy says

    I’ve thought that a newspaper that hired ex private investigators might be successful. The language would be much less polished but there might be some facts. Most of todays journalists are seemingly allergic to mundane facts. They completely miss that reporting some details help give a feeling of accuracy and that the reporter actually was present a the site or event. It would also help support whatever position they chose to push in the story.

    For example here in Connecticut a transgender girl recently competed in the HS women’s track championships. Of course she/he won by a large margin. The reporter for the Hartford Courand did gingerly note that most of the competitors were not amused but otherwise the story was all about peoples feelings. Only elsewhere on the web were people reporting the large margin between any male high school runner and all female high school runners. The story would then have been about how allowing transgender athletes would pretty much end women’s high school sports in most areas. The activist viewpoint of the reporter killed a much more interesting and indeed compassionate story about the real difficulties of a transgender student.

    • BH428 says

      “The activist viewpoint of the reporter killed a much more interesting and indeed compassionate story about the real difficulties of a transgender student.”

      So now stating the obvious, that imposed compassion to allow genetically male bodies to compete in women’s sports would end women’s sports, is activism? How did we get here?

      The silver lining is that this situation servers up a huge red pill to the women athletes.

      • TarsTarkas says

        Unfortunately some of them feel badly for the poor trans. Others are too afraid to speak out for fear of being called bigoted. Those that do protest are either ignored by the media or called phobes.

  11. Why says

    You’re telling news organizations not to be activists? Isn’t that both too obvious to be worth saying, and not forceful enough to have any effect?
    If they’re ‘ends-centric’, why would they be swayed by your view of how they should report? It won’t serve their ends.

  12. Andrew Roddy says

    If we mandate journalists to seek out the ‘simple truth’ we have to expect they will come back to us with a lot of simple and very little truth.
    Facts have their place and we may live in a time when they are being compelled to keep it.. That might be liberating. It might take a veil from our eyes.

  13. I think the change to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) code of ethics 22 years ago figures importantly. It removed objectivity and unleashed advocacy journalism. (I think most laypeople still think journalists have an ethical responsibility to be objective.) Though it’s not my argument journalists can be truly objective, the ethical requirement had them explore ideas that challenged their biases. They learnt stuff. Expanding their knowledge made them more competent, and it even improved their allies’ arguments because they had to answer questions.

    Today, they simply toss softball questions to their allies – this is practicing “good allyship”, and the journalist also faces social and professional peer pressure to conform. Advocacy journalism makes the journalist a spokesperson, a public relations agent.

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  15. “Some paid more for it than others, and this has given rise to authoritarian populism across the West; an ideology based on one form of identity-based blame-shifting or another whether on the basis of race, class, or now, gender.”

    Oh look. Another definition of Populism. Sigh.

  16. It could be that “journalism” in this country has come full circle. Broadsheets were very partisan. 🙂 My parents taught us how to glean basic facts from stories but always question the rest. I changed my journalism major 30 years ago because I found the profs so partisan. And ignorant. One very respected prof proclaimed that cable would never compete with the big three and anyone would dared suggest different was ignorant. I thought the times were very exciting and limitless.

  17. Martin28 says

    The problem of activist journalism versus objectivity fits in well with Jordan Peterson’s idea that the Postmodernists are right that there are infinite interpretations of the world. But only a limited number of interpretations actually work in the real world. There is no true objectivity and probably infinite interpretations of fairness, but throwing these out is a disaster. Seeking objectivity as the ideal and striving for fairness makes journalism and journalists better. It keeps in check the toxic mob inclination.

    I was always suspicious of the “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” adage, as it seemed like circular reasoning and not very useful. Now I know why. It was ironic from the start.

  18. BH428 says

    “activist journalism” appears to be an oxymoron, unless there is a category of journalists reporting on activists.

    IMO I suppose you could be an activist journalist if you stuck to the truth, or at least reported both sides of issues. But if you lie, or are one sided, you should no longer be considered to be a journalist.

  19. ccscientist says

    People today are not satisfied with an ordinary life. Being a good parent, a good citizen, a good neighbor, doing some charity work and going to church–not enough. They have seen too much Star Wars and want to be heroes. The job of journalists is to report on the world as it is. It is not to make the world better. By reporting truthfully and checking their facts they DO make the world better. By covering a march with 100 people and making it look like 1000 they are making the world worse, not better. By losing their minds over Trump they are not making the world better. If you cannot trust what you read in the papers, how can you vote properly? How can you run your business?

  20. Journalists who undermine their own credibility eliminate the justification for their role. They are not smart enough to have opinions worth reading. Their only proper function is discovering the truth and presenting it to the public.

  21. markbul says

    First, there were reporters. These men (and most were men) usually had no more than a high school education. Then came journalists. Which were tarted up reporters with college degrees. Now, we have ‘communicators.’ As in ‘science communicators.’ Also known as activists. Andy Revkin talked a lot about teaching young science communicators in his New York Times columns – which certainly had an activist agenda.

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