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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Fighting for the soul of journalism

 The question, “Who is a journalist?”, has special importance in an era where citizens can commit random acts of journalism with the flick of a computer key.

However, after several years of debate, people tire of the question. Is this just semantics – how you define the word ‘journalism’?

I think not.

Recent developments in the United States show that if journalists are unable to define who they are and how they differ from other media users, the public sphere will be filled by political partisans, bogus news organizations, and imposters claiming to be journalists.

Across the United States, right-wing nonprofit foundations such as the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity are setting up internet “wire services” and web sites that claim to do journalism – to cover politics while pushing for free market and libertarian policies.

The foundations train activists to use media and they hire journalists to cover state legislatures. They apply for membership in state press galleries. In January, the Franklin Center established; earlier it established the the Illinois Statehouse News.

These partisan groups take advantage of the reduction in mainstream reporters that cover state legislatures. They know that newsrooms with fewer staff will be tempted to use their stories. Therefore, partisan sites are increasingly successful in getting their stories into newspapers or in having their editorials discussed on radio talk shows.

The mainstream outlets that pick up their reports often don’t explain that partisan groups constructed the stories. Also, the partisans deny that they are partisan, although they are reluctant to name their donors. They claim to be doing ethical and objective journalism. Some claim to follow the code of the Society of Professional Journalists.

My state of Wisconsin is a testing ground for this partisan assault on journalism. If this activist model works here, these groups are prepared to establish similar services across the country as they prepare for a presidential election next year.

This is not a question of semantics. It is a battle for the soul of journalism.

Who are these guys anyway?

Take, for example, The site’s “about” page lists the names of three reporters with journalism experience. But dig deeper.
The web site is sponsored by the Franklin Center founded in 2009 as a national organization “to train and support investigative journalism and journalism endeavors.”  Franklin is supported by the libertarian Sam Adams Alliance and Foundation.

Consider another example, the right-wing activist web site, Media Trackers,  It describes itself as a “conservative non-profit, non-partisan investigative watchdog dedicated to promoting accountability in the media and government across Wisconsin.” A ‘donate’ button on the site indicates that it is supported by the Virginia-based, right-wing American Majority. Donations will help develop conservative activities and support potential conservative political candidates.

In Wisconsin, supporting free markets and keeping government accountable can be “code” for supporting Tea Party protests, attacking the Democrats, and supporting conservative Gov. Scott Walker’s policies. The trouble with challenging these partisan ventures is that they justify what they do in standard journalistic terms. They claim they are acting as watchdog on elected officials. They are digging up facts that keep elected officials accountable.

Replying to the partisans

How should journalists reply to partisans who claim to be do journalism? The only way journalists can distinguish themselves from impostures is to appeal to their ethical aims, standards, and practices.

First we need to change the question. The question is not: “Is this journalism?” since almost any public commentary can count as an act of journalism. A better question is: Is this good or bad journalism in the public interest? We adopt a normative approach.  We ask whether journalism-like associations are following the standards of non-partisan public journalism.

What standards are those? They include:

  1. Public journalists are true public servants, not activists: Public journalism organizations are committed to serving the public at large with impartial information and perspectives. Their allegiance is not to a specific group, ideology, or cause, which they advance at every turn. Public journalists are not actors (or activists) in the public sphere insisting that officials follow their ideological principles. Public journalists stand among contending groups; they do not stand with (or work for) a political group. Public journalists inform the public on what the groups say about issues.
  2. Public journalists are truly impartial and objective: Being impartial or “non-partisan” means much more than reporting facts. Being non-partisan has to do with how journalists select the facts, and what stories they do or ignore. Non-partisan journalists follow all the facts to wherever they lead, without the straightjacket of ideology.
  3. Public journalists are truly independent: Truly independent reporters do not self-censure. They feel free to do stories that go against the political leanings of employers or funders.
  4. Public journalists are truly transparent: Nonprofit, non-partisan journalism organizations are willing to let the public know who pays for their news and who donates to their organizations. They allow the public to assess the integrity of the journalism.

To be a true public journalist, you need to satisfy, as much as possible, all of these values. You are not a public journalist because you satisfy one standard, e.g. you report facts. You can’t say that you are a watchdog when you watchdog only one entity — the party that opposes your ideology.

Blurring the line

Blurring the line between journalism and political activism means that the public may be unable to distinguish between partisan groups that use journalistic techniques for their own ends, and journalists who use journalistic techniques to impartially inform the public.

My objection to these new wire services is not political. I’d be as troubled if left-wing groups participated in the same charade. Nor do I think it is wrong for these political groups to promote their causes. But I object when these groups claim to be non-partisan journalists.

The truth is that the agenda of these foundations is not to do objective journalism but to train writers as foot soldiers for their political causes.

Note: This blog is an abbreviated version of an article to appear in Media magazine.







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