Beyond Advocacy v. Objective Journalism: Who is really objective

By Robert Jensen

Published in MediaBite · July, 2007

MediaBite’s latest guest contributor is Robert Jensen, Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas, who challenges the notion that journalism which disputes the conventional wisdom should always be labelled as “advocacy” or “activist”, and seen as less trustworthy than traditional mainstream ‘objective’ journalism. He contrasts the journalism and perspective of John Pilger with that of John Burns from the New York Times – the former often disregarded as ‘left wing’ and the latter widely regarded as a trusted and objective mainstream voice.

by Robert Jensen

In a recent discussion with other journalism professors, I suggested that mainstream journalists have failed to grasp the depth of the crises — cultural and political, economic and ecological — that the United States and modern industrial society face, and hence are failing in their fundamental task in a democratic society, the work of monitoring the centers of power.

A colleague acknowledged the importance of such issues, but said that university schools of journalism don’t teach “advocacy journalism” or promote the idea of “the journalist as activist.”

This advocacy/activist tag is often applied to journalists who don’t accept the conventional wisdom of the powerful and dare to challenge the more basic frameworks within which news is reported. The idea seems to be that anyone who doesn’t fall in line with the worldview of the powerful people and institutions in society is not “objective,” and therefore must be motivated not by a principled search for truth but some pre-determined political agenda.

But the crucial distinction is not between “objective” and “advocacy/activist” journalists but (1) between propagandists and journalists, and then (2) between journalists who do the job well and those who do it poorly. If there is a label we might valorize, it should be “independent” — we need journalists who are independent not only from the powerful but also from any political movements.

While this may seem to be a hyper-sensitivity about terminology, an examination of these labels can help us understand both the problems with, and possibilities of, contemporary journalism.

The term advocacy journalism typically is used to describe the use of techniques to promote a specific political or social cause. The term is potentially meaningful only in opposition to a category of journalism that does not engage in advocacy, so-called objective journalism.

This distinction is a focus of attention most intensely in the United States, especially in the last half of the 20th century; use of these terms does not necessarily translate for other political landscapes, though U.S. (and more generally Western) models are becoming dominant. In Western Europe, some newspapers have long identified openly with a political position, even though journalists from those papers are considered professionals not typically engaged in advocacy. For example, in Italy Il Manifesto identifies itself as a communist newspaper philosophically but does not associate with any party and operates as a workers’ cooperative. In the nations of the Third World that became independent since World War II, journalism typically was part of freedom movements inherently in support of liberation from colonialism. Many independent publications retain that opposition to entrenched power, such as The Hindu in India.

The press in the United States, which was distinctly partisan well into the 19th century, developed objectivity norms that now define the practices of corporate-commercial news media. Many journalists found (and find) those norms constraining, and in the political fervor of the 1960s and 1970s, advocacy journalism emerged with counterculture and revolutionary political activity. Other terms used for practice outside the mainstream include alternative, gonzo, or new journalism. Within those forms, journalists may openly identify with a group or movement or remain independent while adopting similar values and political positions.

This advocacy-objectivity dichotomy springs from political theory that asserts a special role for journalists in complex democratic societies. Journalists’ claims to credibility are based in an assertion of neutrality. They argue for public trust by basing their report of facts, analysis, and opinion on rigorous information gathering. Professional self-monitoring produces what journalists consider an unbiased account of reality, rather than a selective account reflecting a guiding political agenda.

At one level, the term advocacy might be useful in distinguishing, for example, journalistic efforts clearly serving a partisan agenda (such as a political party publication) from those officially serving non-partisan ends (such as a commercial newspaper). But the distinction is not really between forms of journalism as much as between persuasion and journalism. Although so-called objective journalism assumes that, as a rule, disinterested observers tend to produce more reliable reports, a publication advocating a cause might have more accurate information and compelling analysis than a non-partisan one. The intentions of those writing and editing the publication are the key distinguishing factor.

More complex is categorizing different approaches to journalism by those not in the direct service of an organization or movement. Can those who advocate a particular philosophical or political perspective — but remain independent of a partisan group — produce journalism that the general public can trust?

An extended example is helpful here. In general usage, freelance reporter John Pilger (Australian born, now living in the United Kingdom) could be considered an advocacy journalist, and New York Times reporter, John Burns, an objective journalist. Both are experienced and hard-working, with a sophisticated grasp of world affairs, and both have reported extensively about Iraq. Pilger primarily writes for newspapers and magazines in England but has a large following in the United States, and he also is a documentary filmmaker. Burns writes almost exclusively for the Times but also gives frequent interviews on television and radio programs about his reporting. Anti-war and anti-empire groups circulate Pilger’s reports and screen his documentaries, but he, like Burns, describes himself as an independent journalist and rejects affiliations with any political groups.

Pilger is, however, openly critical of U.S. and U.K. policies toward Iraq, including unambiguous denunciations of the self-interested motivations and criminal consequences of state policies. His reporting leads him not only to describe these policies but to offer an analysis that directly challenges the framework of the powerful. Burns, in contrast, avoids such assessments, not only in news reports but also in articles labeled analysis . His reporting tends to accept the framework of the powers promoting these policies, and his criticism tends to question their strategy and tactics, not their basic motivations. In some sense, both journalists advocate for a particular view of state power and how it operates in the areas they cover. Both have reputations for accurately reporting; the difference resides in their interpretations. The language of mainstream journalism would see Burns as objective but not Pilger.

The example illustrates the limits of conceptions of journalism as practiced in the media industries, especially those under corporate commercial control. All reporters use a framework of analysis to understand the world and report on it. But reporting containing open references to underlying political assumptions and conclusions seems to engage in advocacy, while the more conventional approach appears neutral. Both are independent, in the sense of not being directed by a party or movement, but neither approach is in fact neutral. One explicitly endorses a political perspective critical of the powerful, while implicitly reinforcing the political perspective of the elite.

Accounts of the world, including journalistic ones, must begin from some assumptions about the way the world works. None is neutral. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can know or trust about the world, or that journalists can’t offer us reliable information. It simply means that those who report from the conventional wisdom are not exempt from the questions about perspective.

Readers should keep that in mind. So should journalists.