Responsible Reporting Section 2 ‘The New Journalisms’: Chapter IV

Today’s excerpt from Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers spotlights the fourth type of journalism. The other three: Contextual, process, and conversational. Advocacy journalism is the most provocative of the five that the ebook identifies. Many people working in traditional news media outlets would scoff at the idea.

They would be wrong. Advocacy journalism has a long history—centuries old—but the Internet magnifies its reach and the soapbox upon which its proponents stand. 

Please also read the other excerpts: Foreward and from Section 1, Chapters, I and II, III and IV, V and VI to grasp the logical flow. Reminder: The book releases into the public domain soon after the serialization completes.

With that introduction…


IV. Advocacy Journalism

Objectivity in journalism is a myth. It’s a fiction, a grand illusion, like the Wizard of Oz. But behind the curtain, obscured by smoke and lights, there is nothing but a little man with an agenda.

Bias is unavoidable. It’s everywhere, and every journalist seeking balance when writing stories fools himself or herself when denying this. There’s no such thing as objective reporting. Bias is built into the fabric of culture. Your vantage point, whether visual, cultural, biological, logistical, or whatever other “ical” applied, shapes how and what you write about.

Something else: Perspective and perception are everything in writing (podcasting or vlogging), because every narrative requires some point of view. Bias seeps through based on how the writer perceives the things he or she communicates, how he or she choses to the tell the story, and how sources are quoted or summarized—that’s without considering feelings, personality, and social influences, which inflect bias.

In book Predictably Irrational, researcher Dan Ariely explains: “Everything is relative, and that’s the point”. We make few decisions where one thing isn’t compared against something else. “Understand that relativity is everywhere, and that we view everything through its lens”. Relative comparisons affect point of view, which absolutely influence reporting and storytelling.

Advocate Everyone
“All journalism is advocacy journalism”, Matt Taibbi asserts.

“No matter how it’s presented, every report by every reporter advances someone’s point of view”, he emphasizes. “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)”.

Advocacy journalism is nothing new, but the Internet and contextual tools amplify it—reason for grouping with the other four journalisms. The web weaves soapboxes, upon which someone advocates a point of view.

Readers are biased, too, and seek out advocates. Marchionni’s research demonstrates how people look for writers who are like themselves. Consider Pew’s research about how Twitter groups form, as another example.

As I will further discuss in the third section, traditional journalism education advocates “reporting truth” as the principal journalistic ethic. Audience matters more, or does in the age of context where there are so many sources of information to choose from. Does the Mac fanboy want to go to his favorite blog and read about how Android is superior to iOS? No, he wants to read about how Apple kicks Google’s ass! Does the Tea Party member or liberal Democrat actively seek out stories slamming his or her political views—or validates them?

Advocacy journalism isn’t bad journalism, as some of my peers will assert; 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.

“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”, Taibbi expresses.

The audience needs to trust the news gatherer, whether he or she strongly advocates a single viewpoint or attempts to present several vantage points, which is the closest anyone ever gets to objectivity. The most responsible reporting—that which can be trusted—starts with what the news gatherer knows to be true in the moment. Writing an unconfirmed, unsourced rumor about Apple developing a Dick Tracy watch—and replacing iPhone—that turns out to be wrong, advocates nothing but misinformation.

Advocate Nobody
Public relations, or marketing, is not advocacy journalism. PR is not journalism, at all. Marketers advocate a point of view, but it’s self-interested. The journalist advocate serves the audience and strives for accuracy even when favoring one point of view. The PR advocate acts on behalf of a client, company, or other entity. Stated differently: The news gatherer is accountable to his audience. The PR professional is accountable to client or employer.

Corporate blogs and social sharing tools give PR advocates booming voice. As section three explains, one of the journalist’s primary responsibilities is to sift through all the online noise and produce a cohesive, accurate narrative.

Advocate Blogger
John Gruber is example of an advocacy journalist, and quite a successful one, too. Spend any time on his Daring Fireball blog, and it’s clear Gruber espouses a point of view, particularly supporting Apple. Gruber is an advocate, and he is transparent about his position. That said, he sometimes challenges Apple, not just cheerleads.

Gruber is excellent example of the audience-focused personality, and his business model breaks away from the Google free economy. In September 2004, he stopped using AdSense and switched to sponsorships, effectively selling direct advertising space. The blog generates enough income to support Gruber.

Advocate BGR
Advocacy journalism takes subtler forms, which support Taibbi’s assertions. On Feb. 25, 2014, BGR posted: “Apple urges Arizona governor to veto discrimination bill”. The legislation would allow businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians. By using “discrimination” in the headline, writer Ben Zigterman and BGR editors make a value judgment. They advocate a position that the bill, SB 1062, discriminates.

Many people reading the story, mainly BGR’s presumably younger readership, would agree with “discrimination”. Nevertheless, the word advocates a position against a bill supported by a large enough number of state legislators, which presumes many of them see refusal of service differently than the blogger. The story would be more objective had Zigterman explained the legislation more fully or had he quoted someone who used the “D” word.

Here, the advocacy isn’t necessarily obvious because, again presumably, many BGR readers would agree. To reiterate, since I purposely choose a potentially inflammatory (and hopefully thought-provoking) example: There absolutely is a place for advocacy journalism, as the book’s third section will explain when discussing why a writer’s first responsibility is to his or her audience and how it shapes reporting ethics.

This example reveals something else about objectivity and advocacy. Reader reaction, or even presumed response, creates bias in reporting. Would BGR editors publish “Apple urges Arizona governor to veto religious rights bill” without negative response from many readers? For some supporters, in a state which motto is “God Enriches”, the legislation seeks to preserve religious rights. BGR’s audience is broader, and the blog’s values in reporting reflect the readership.

By contrast, a publication with different audience, New American, chose different tact with a story posted the next day: “Arizona State Senator Defends Religious-freedom Bill”, not “Discrimination Bill”. New American advocates a different position, just by the headline, that presumably reflects the audience’s values.

By the way, Arizona’s governor vetoed the bill.

Advocate Devil
There’s another way to look at advocacy journalism, which defies long-held principles about objectivity. I believe that one of the journalist’s jobs is to stir up the audience pot—to get people thinking and looking from different points of view. As such, most of my news stories do not reflect my own opinion. I may write like they do, but devil’s advocate is one of my favored perspectives. I affirmatively advocate counterpoints.

So-called objective writing robs readers of perspective—strips back vital nuances essential to evaluating an event or situation. Advocacy journalism isn’t just someone taking a position and pushing it but also taking the contrary perspective. You advocate something you don’t believe for the audience’s benefit. Get them to think. To discuss. To vent. That’s a quality of good storytelling—putting the narrative first.

I often accent this counter-advocacy approach with punchy, provocative headlines—with intention to tweak someone. Based on comments, many readers assume the position taken reflects my own, in part because of my affirmative writing style bolstered by using active voice. I kick the hornet’s nest, knowing it will stir up comment reaction.

Advocacy journalism is all about audience generation and satisfaction.