In recent years, the combination between journalism and activism is one that is becoming more present in today’s media landscape, as more and more reporters find themselves guided by their own political beliefs and agenda in pursuing a story. A prime example of this is Glenn Greenwald, whose political beliefs are apparent throughout his blog, in which he describes himself as being suspicious of government and national security.
In the New York Times piece, “Journalism, Even When It’s Tilted,” David Carr explores the argument of journalism versus activism. However, the most poignant part comes in the form of a quote from Greenwald: “It is not a matter of being an activist or a journalist; it’s a false dichotomy. It is a matter of being honest or dishonest.”
The idea that being a journalist is completely incompatible with being an activist continues to advance the empty mainstream argument that “objectivity is key.” Yet objectivity is inane, and ignores the ways in which all individuals — journalists included — operate from their own implicit biases and from a lens that constructs how they view the world. For mainstream outlets who preach this idea of objectivity, attempting to advance an idea of neutrality is inherently dishonest to readers and only tries to hide the true views of the reporters and the outlet.
Carr writes that “‘Activist’ has become a code word for someone who is driven by an agenda beyond seeking information on the public’s behalf.” But in addition to that, activist has also become a code word for an untrustworthy journalist, an argument that is perpetuated by the mainstream media and predicated on the belief that activists are not ethical journalists. But the idea that a journalist who is passionate about particular topics is not a true journalist is completely nonsensical, as it is obvious that even mainstream journalists harbor their own biases. The damage there is the fact that these journalists do not disclose these beliefs and try to bury them under the guise of objectivity.
It’s a false truth that objective journalists are the best journalists, as much as it is false that advocacy journalists are the worst. Journalists who are open and transparent about their activism remain honest with their audiences — they are not trying to hide behind a curtain of neutrality. And oftentimes, journalists who are guided by their activism and political beliefs in their reporting often end up conducting the most hard-hitting investigative reports. The belief that there is something wrong or corrupt often motivates journalists to uncover the truth, and this pursuit is one of the greatest hallmarks of journalism.
The idea that journalists cannot also be activists is damaging to the reputation of journalism. It attempts to sideline individuals who have the journalistic talent and passion from providing a service to the public by revealing corruption and illicit activity from those in power for the sake of remaining objective. It does not allow for innovation and stifles journalism from reaching its highest potential of fulfilling its duty of being the eyes and ears for the public.
It is pertinent for mainstream media to leave behind this idea of objectivity and further embrace the idea that journalism and activism can work together in cohesion. This idea of remaining objective has caused more harm than good, and can be clearly seen in how mainstream media coverage of Donald Trump ultimately contributed to his rise in the political ranks.
Consumers are increasingly starting to see the holes in this objective style of reporting, resulting in a general distrust of the media. But for journalism to rebuild its reputation, it must first abandon the traditional model and begin to see the viability in combining journalism and activism.