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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Does ‘Caring’ Require Advocacy in Journalism?

by Elecia Chrunik

Journalists expose the world to the spectrum of humanity’s achievements and atrocities. Meanwhile, they are discouraged from becoming directly entangled in the world that they report on so they do not affect the outcome of the story.

There are extremes; some journalists refuse to vote or to become members of the school boards that their children are on so they can avoid a potential conflict of interest. But there are times when journalists are asked to cover stories that they can not or do not want to remove themselves from.

Advocacy and journalism are usually two separate worlds. A journalist’s responsibility is to the audience and the public sphere, regardless of the members of the story. But the media is also expected to provide a vehicle for the marginalized, so that the scope of society’s voices can be heard. Often, the audience is made of people who are suffering and who need a loud and steady voice to speak on their behalf. This is the struggle that makes it difficult for some journalists to know how far to go on behalf of a cause.

As the media landscape changes and problems on the other side of the globe are increasingly felt at home because of advances in technology, there is a new movement in journalism that marries leadership and action with reporting a story. Advocacy journalism is an emerging trend, but is it territory that journalists should even attempt to explore? Is there too much at stake?

Sean Condon was writing a story about the street vendor-distributed newspaper, Street Corner. It’s a biweekly publication that advocates for homeless people in Vancouver. Similar publications are seen in many of the world’s developed cities. After Condon wrote the story, he remained interested in the situation and eventually became involved with the newspaper. He is now the editor and has helped to re-launch it with new distribution goals and perhaps a more suitable name, Megaphone.

Condon believes that there is room to do both good journalism and advocate on behalf of a cause. But it’s not something he does without considering the implications. “I thought, you can’t get too involved. Or can you be too much of an advocate? Do you lose your greatest asset – that your paper produces great journalism as well? It’s certainly a line that I think about and wonder if I’m crossing.”

Few will argue with the statement that homelessness is a problem in Vancouver. And to help fix it, there need to be crusaders and people willing to devote time and energy to it. Journalists, by their very nature, are adept at communicating important messages. Condon sees his efforts as necessary. “We’re trying to deal with issues that are in some ways life or death,” he said. When it comes to juggling advocacy and objectivity, it’s a difficult balance. “When you’re in the midst of it, [objectivity] is not really an option, this is something that needs to be done.”

But that doesn’t mean that journalistic ethics can’t remain intact. “You still have a responsibility to be telling the truth and if you sacrifice that to advocate on behalf of something you might be doing more damage than help,” Condon said.
Compassion becomes motivation for telling the story. In advocacy journalism, a cause itself becomes important, rather than just the events surrounding a cause. And the power of the media becomes a vehicle to push for change. 
But it is counter-intuitive behavior for a trained journalist. And it takes a conscious effort to cross that invisible line and go from merely gathering facts and telling stories to becoming a part of the story.

All forms of journalism grapple with issues of knowing how far to go on one side of an issue while still maintaining those abstract ideals of objectivity and balance. Even sports journalism and entertainment journalism have responsibilities to approach a story with ideals of truth and balance as a guide.

There can be negative consequences to advocacy journalism, like any form of journalism, when it is not done responsibly. “It’s very easy to get carried away and you have to realize your responsibilities so you don’t abuse your power,” Condon said. 

Independence from faction is one of the core elements that Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explore in their book, The Elements of Journalism. They disagree that there is room for journalists to do their job properly if they are advocating on behalf of a cause. “One might imagine that one could both report on events and be a participant in them, but the reality is that being a participant clouds all other tasks that a journalist must perform,” they say. The main risk of becoming involved in stories is abuse in the relationship between the media and the audience. But considering the intense and entrenched relationships that develop on behalf of investigative journalism, it seems to be a somewhat irrational expectation for journalists to remain completely detached from the world they report on. 

The libertarian ideal of the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people can be interpreted in a number of ways to fulfill certain goals. A journalist could intentionally leave information out of a story if he or she thinks that it would damage the chances of reaching a certain goal on behalf of the cause. Interview subjects are selected with care and leading questions are meant to warrant expected answers. The outcome of a story is based on a myriad of decisions and a journalist, good intentions or not, has to face thousands of decisions with every story. 

Providing voices One of the main functions of having a free and open media is to provide all levels of society with a voice so that a complete picture is presented to the public and so informed decisions can be made. So it makes sense that advocacy journalism exists, because those that need the most attention are the ones who are most marginalized and least likely to have constant opportunity to be heard. Often the homeless or the drug-addicted or the poor will be brought into the spotlight when there is national interest at stake. But they are often just as quickly forgotten when the story loses its timeliness value.

The Olympics have shone a light into some of the darker corners of Vancouver’s downtown east side. But what will happen to those people once the issue of national image fades from the public discourse? Those who practice advocacy journalism fill the role of constantly pushing the marginalized populations into the public eye. But an advocacy journalist must be careful not to abuse the relationship with the people he is helping for personal gain. 
David Beers, editor of The Tyee web site points out that there is a power relationship that is automatically at play when an interview is conducted and a story is being built. Sometimes a journalist is in control and other times, especially when a scoop is at stake, a journalist will have to bend to the will of the interviewee. 

Is it possible, in the name of advocacy, for a journalist to abuse the interviewer/interviewee relationship? The people being interviewed are vulnerable. Traditionally, the ultimate reward for a journalist is creating an unbiased and balanced story. But the glory of being an advocate or a martyr might have its own appeal.  
 Citizen journalism Networking technologies have changed the terrain in which journalists operate. It has created an entire new genre in citizen journalism. This has put more power in to the hands of the people and has created a new method of advocacy. Now anyone can be a journalist, though to what degree is highly contested. The very definition of what it means to be a journalist has been called in to question in light of web sites like NowPublic that publish accounts from embedded people writing first-hand accounts of tragedies, celebrations, and protests. 

Regardless of the style of journalism that one chooses to support, it is a matter of constantly doing checks and balances that motivations and intentions are aligned with traditional journalistic values. Becoming involved with a cause blurs the lines of a journalist’s duties and responsibilities. The public might have a difficult time accepting and trusting that journalists are both promoters and truth-tellers. And there are many ways that a journalist can abuse his or her power if he or she feels that the ends justify the means. 

But there are people who need help in getting the world to pay attention to their problems. And advocacy journalism fills that role. But no matter what and at any cost, a journalist has to be honest about intentions and transparent about methods.

A journalist, while bearing witness, needs to get the story and get it right. But as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, journalists are finding room to represent and become involved with a cause, so long as methods are transparent and biases are forthcoming.

MEGAPHONE, a bi-weekly publication that advocates for Vancouver’s homeless people.

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