The Case for Advocacy Journalism

Judging by Philip Elmer-DeWitt’s Google+ posts, he is a nobody—less than 500 Circles and virtually no comments. Reality is something else: Philip is a respected reporter responsible for the Apple 2.0 blog. Googlism is primary reason, I believe, for the response—or lack of it. The social network attracts Google fanboys and abhors others. There isn’t much audience for him on Plus.

But over on the Fortune website, Philip’s following is clear, judging by comments to his frequent posts. He falls into the “advocacy journalism” category. Philip writes for an Apple audience and often, but by no means always, favorably about the fruit-logo company.

Today he writes “iTunes is now nearly half the size of Google’s core business“, culling data from Horace Dediu’s insightful analysis posted yesterday. Horace is an advocacy analyst, with slant towards Apple. Both advocates, and others like them, play important roles in news reporting. They help offset the blog and news site echo chamber that reverberates rumor and misinformation across the Internet.

Echoing Mayhem
Apple is amazing case study, because online opinions and misinformation are common and often polarized. For example, the company ended January by reporting fantastic calendar fourth quarter 2013 results—$57.6 billion revenue and $13.1 billion net profit. But the stock slumped more than 8 percent in after-hours and next-day trading. Record iPhone shipments and next-quarter guidance missed Wall Street targets. The following day, I laid out the numbers, demonstrating just how fantastic they are.

But once the first “Apple is doomed” stories skidded across the InterWebs, The Echo Chamber bellowed out one me-too story after another. Examples range from probing analyses to torrid slapdowns. Among them:

AP described Apple earnings as “lackluster“, that for a record-setting quarter where a single product, iPhone, generated $8 billion more revenue than all Microsoft. MarketWatch quoted an analyst predicting Apple’s stock would fall as much as 40 percent. It didn’t.

There’s a strange attitude among bloggers and, worse, newsrooms that you must follow someone else’s reporting. Imitation and regurgitation rule the day, driving topical feeding frenzies. Yeah, I mix metaphors.

Advocates act against insanity and the echoing mayhem. In my experience, the writers most capable of balancing the news record are those unabashed about their leanings. Simple truth: Bias is inevitable. Objectivity in news reporting is folklore. There is no such thing. The true advocates don’t pretend otherwise. Knowing what they are and their agenda helps readers filter out bias. By contrast, hidden bias is the most destructive, and there is way too much of it, like inside The Echo Chamber.

Bias is Inevitable
Matt Taibbi contends that “all journalism is advocacy journalism“, and he makes good points:

No matter how it’s presented, every report by every reporter advances someone’s point of view. The advocacy can be hidden, as it is in the monotone narration of a news anchor for a big network like CBS or NBC (where the biases of advertisers and corporate backers like GE are disguised in a thousand subtle ways), or it can be out in the open…Like many others, in my career I decided early on that I’d rather be out in the open about my opinions, and let readers know what my biases are to the extent that I can.

Matt is among my favorite writers, and I excitedly tear open every Rolling Stone where his work appears. His writing style is crass and funny, while the stories are well-reported. He is the best kind of advocacy journalist, correcting the public record where there is gross misrepresentation of facts. Some examples:

Advocacy journalism isn’t just good journalism; it can be, and often is, great journalism. That is, when biases are clear and in the open. Advice: Never trust a blogger or journalist who claims to be objective. Bias is inevitable.

Reader Bias
Circling back to where this started, readers are biased, too. Google+ is good example, where all-things Google is good. Apple and other competitors of the search and information giant, well…you know. Is it such rocket science that people choose to read what aligns with, or even reinforces, their biases? Good writers write for their audience, for whom they may advocate. That’s Philip’s case.

Comments reflect readers’ biases. I contemplate commenting’s merits as earnest work begins on my forthcoming book Be a Better Blogger (crowdfunding currently is underway). The topic is unavoidable, because comments’ value is hotly debated among editors and writers, in part because of trolling.

In summer 2010, I made the decision to curate comments. Not that it matters for the current state of this blog, which was idle for three years and from where changing domains eliminated most comments culled by Disqus. (Most posts you read between late-June 2011 and early February 2014 are backfilled from Google+, from which I declare independence.)

Back to topic, reader responses extend the narrative and quality of the storytelling—and even the news reporting. In her research, professor Doreen Marchionni describes the process as “Conversational Journalism“. I am a fan of work, and you should be, too.

Among the themes to watch for in Be a Better Blogger: Advocacy Journalism, Conversational Journalism, and Process Journalism. Additionally: original content and proper sourcing.

Twenty-six revisions (saves in WordPress parlance), and that’s a wrap!