October 02, 2004
Activism and Journalism

How does one resolve the goals of activism with those of journalism? Does not working for a certain outcome at some point come into conflict with telling the truth?

After attending a Symposium on more or less this topic, hosted by the King's College of Journalism in Halifax, it strikes me that we have a long way to go before this question becomes relevant. Phrased more vigourously, the division of activism and journalism serves to distract from the issues that are most pressing for the majority of people in the world today.

Quite simply: the current state of journalism is an utter catastrophe. Journalists regularly print lies without repudiating them, and avoid providing the most basic context that would enable elementary understanding of the situations that are reported on. Before we can talk about being activist journalists, we have to talk about being journalists who are decent human beings who try to not misrepresent things, and maybe even seek the truth. We're not there yet.

I'll explain.

What, exactly, does one do to become (known as) an activist journalist? Does it suffice to agitate to make certain facts widely known? It involves, in any case, having specific political views.

But what kind of political views? There are clearly two seperate standards for what constitutes an activist journalist. If an individual pours the entirety of her journalistic efforts into maintaining the status quo, it is quite unlikely that she will become known as an activist.

It rather obvious, also, that if one posesses views that deviate significantly from "common sense" or conventional wisdom, then the situation is quite different.

The concept that this setup turns on is objectivity. The word "truth" is seldom used by journalists; objectivity, it seems, is far more highly valued, and much more often referred to as the ideal or standard of professional journalism.

But objectivity isn't truth. It refers, instead, to a kind of detachment or neutrality which implicitly leads to truth. The premise is that if one does not favour one particular interpretation of events, then one is more likely to render an impartial and balanced report, which takes all relvant facts into account.

While there is pressure on journalists to be detached, there is little to no pressure on them to take all relevant facts into account. (In newsrooms where journalists commonly write 2-4 stories a day, the opposite is indeed the case.)

So objectivity has come to mean that one states a few facts in a detached and neutral way, leaving the reader to impose values or particular in-depth interpretations. It's all very diplomatic. We report, you decide.

However: truth is how things actually are, or at least, how they are when given our full, unimpeded attention.

posted by dru in journalism

All forms of communication function on the basis of preconceptions and assumptions. If I say "I'm going to the market," I'm relying on a language and a picture of the world that I share with the person I'm communicating with. As soon as I stray from a shared context (a language, a city, a neighborhood), I risk communicating something that will be understood in a way that does not correspond to reality. Someone who has just arrived from rural Pakistan, for example, will imagine something quite different from the market I'm about to go to in downtown Halifax. Indeed, someone from the same city who frequents the local farmer's market might also require clarification.

That I am going to the market, if I in fact am, is a matter of objective fact. But the mere statement of this fact does not ensure accurate understanding or truth. As we have seen, it allows for a wide range of interpretation, depending on the context in which it is received.

News stories operate in the same context. Facts presented "objectively"--which is to say, in a neutral and detached manner--leave room for the reader to insert their own preconceptions, whatever they may be. Thus, the burden of understanding the context is completely left up to what context the reader has available to her.

The reader who glances at a story about a hurricane hitting Haiti and the ensuing humanitarian disaster will likely attribute the disaster to the hurricane and the existence of widespread poverty. In the absence of further explanation, there will be no basis for an understanding of the role of imperialism, US-supported dictators, or CIA-funded paramilitaries in the creation of this situation. Journalists will point out that this is outside the purview of the article in question, which focuses on the hurricane. And quite rightly: accurate understanding of the situation is not primarily what professional journalists provide, although it happens now and then.

Insofar as it does not actively provide context and challenge preconceptions that are widespread and inaccurate, journalism puts a premium on maintaining the status quo at the expense of the truth. In the majority of cases, "balance" and "objectivity" serve to obscure what is going on rather than elucidate it. And this is possible through the statement of verifiable, objectively accurate facts. (This is not to say that the media does not present information that is not verifiable or that directly contradicts reality.)

(Some historians have argued that the origins of journalistic objectivity are deeply tied to a desire, on the part of commercial newspapers, to provide coverage that would be pleasing to readers of diverse political and cultural views.)

If I am going to the market, but my interlocutor interprets this to mean that I am going to get my hair cut, there is a problem of communication. I need to explain, at least, the difference between market and barber shop. If they have no knowledge of these concepts, I may need to take them with me, to clarify what is referred to when I use the term "market". If they think a market is a place to buy eggs, I still feel some obligation to inform them that there are other functions that it performs as well. Not filling in this context would be irresponsible on my part, if my wish was to communicate truthfully.

Truth, then, is not found in a statement, but in an event--the event of understanding. If there are widespread preconceptions that are inaccurate, as surely there are, then it follows that it is the reponsibility of the truthful journalist to explain what's missing from the popular understanding.

The work of Robert Fisk, Arundhati Roy, John Pilger and dozens of other independent-minded journalists comes to mind. They have an understanding of what the widespread asssumptions are about the subjects they write about, and they sharpen their accounts in an explicit effort to challenge them. In the current climate of widespread disinformation, their work provides space for a shadow of accurate understanding--maybe even truth--to appear.

Though not "objective" in the sense of neutral and detached, this approach provides a much more viable model of getting at a complete picture of reality.

What's astonishing is how blatantly the practice of "objectivity" is not aimed at providing the possibility of accurate understanding, in favour of parading a string of isolated facts and quotes. The shameful thing is that journalism isn't even living up to this extremely limited model of objectivity. If it was, we could talk more about the boundary between activist and journalist. For now, it seems that agitating for the most elemental truths is what self-respecting journalists have to do.

The political apparatus that's at play here is fairly transparent. The status quo is maintained by providing a constant flow of isolated facts, while the context is only ever discussed by a group of politically skewed pundits. When the corporate owners of newspapers and media want to push past the status quo, they turn up the volume on their pundits, as they did before the Iraq war. (For example, Globe columnist Marcus Gee seemed to transform into a full-time advocate for the war.) Some media outlets can help but also skew their "objective" coverage as well, but this is short sighted, as it comes at a heavy cost to their credibility. The National Post, for example, is generally regarded as journalistically more skewed than the Globe, simply because they push a little too hard against the values of most Canadians.

All this is to say: once these basic crises in North American journalism have been dealt with, the question of activist journalism may be a pressing one. Until then, we might as well focus the discussion on journalism's broad failing on its own terms, and the inherent limitations of concepts like "objectivity," "balance," and "fairness," even in their ideal forms.