Advocacy Journalism

Advocacy Journalism can be defined as journalistic praxis (reflective practice). The Nation, in focusing on evidence-based reporting coupled with a standpoint, engages in advocacy journalism. On the other hand, opinion journalism, exemplified by newspaper editorials and media punditry, is not always expected to involve the same degree of in-depth investigation. Nonetheless, the distance separating the two fields is murky, and the terms are sometimes employed interchangeably.

Various designations for advocacy journalism, or species of advocacy journalism, have been used throughout the years. These have included radical journalism (largely in the 19th and early 20th centuries), critical journalism, activist journalism, and social justice journalism. However, advocacy journalism appears to be most common in contemporary discourse.

Foster, Ph.D., Mark A.

... before I ever started blogging, my writing exhibited what I later proactively embraced and described as advocacy journalism, defined as writing whose success can only be judged by its ability to produce the real world change being written about.

Berman, Dave. My Present Path toward Advocacy Journalism. We Do Not Consent. Blog. Retrieved on June 21, 2009.

The term advocacy journalism describes the use of journalism techniques to promote a specific political or social cause. The term is potentially meaningful only in opposition to a category of journalism that does not engage in advocacy, so-called objective journalism (? Objectivity in Reporting). This distinction tends to be a focus of attention in the United States, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, rather than elsewhere in the world; use of these terms does not necessarily translate to other political landscapes, though US (and more generally western) models are becoming dominant (? Journalists’ Role Perception). In western Europe, some newspapers have long identified openly with a political position, even though journalists from these papers are considered professionals not typically engaged in advocacy (? Party–Press Parallelism).

Jensen, Robert, "Advocacy Journalism." Donsbach, Wolfgang (editor). The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Hoboken, NJ. Blackwell Publishing. 2008. Retrieved on June 21, 2009.

The Washington Post's Walter Reed stories. Lou Dobbs on immigration and free trade. Keith Olbermann's "special comments". USA Today's Peter Johnson writes that all are part of a trend back to a kind of early twentieth-century advocacy journalism — which never went away, but rather donned the disguise of objectivity for a few decades.

Spruiell, Stephen, "The Return of Advocacy Journalism." National Review Online. March 6, 2007. Retrieved on June 21, 2009.

The course examines the representation of race, gender, class and power in the media, traditional journalistic practices and newsroom culture. It will prepare students who wish to work in a media-related industry with a critical perspective towards understanding the marginalization of particular groups in the media. This course is taught at the University of Toronto Scarborough and is open only to students in the Joint Program in Journalism.

Course description for Critical Journalism (JOUB02H3). University of Toronto Scarborough. Retrieved on June 24, 2009.

Critical journalism tends to be a more negative version of soft news. It is characterized by journalists who will stop at nothing to expose scandal, deceit, and mistakes in government. Former PBS anchor Robert MacNeil s referring to critical journalism when he says that the trends “are toward the sensational, the hype, the hyperactive, the tabloid values to drive out the serious." Matthew Carleton Ehrlich describes today’s news as “the journalism of outrageousness.”

Merriman, Erin, "Soft News, the Rise of Critical Journalism, and How to Preserve Democracy." EDGE. Spring Quarter. Spring 2003. Retrieved on June 24, 2009.

The purpose of radical journalism ... was to question authority in order to affect social, political, cultural and economic change.

Berry, David. Journalism, Ethics and Society.Surrey, UK. Ashgate. 2008. Page 30.

Critical Journalism
Dunsky, Marda. Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.. New York. Columbia University Press. 2008. Page 393.

Radical Journalism
Radical Journalism

Conboy, Martin. Journalism: A Critical History. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage Publications. 2004. Pages 107-108.

Advocacy journalism is a genre of journalism that (unlike simple propaganda) is fact-based, but supports a specific point of view on an issue. Advocacy journalists might be expected to focus on stories dealing with corporate business practices, government policies, political corruption, and social issues. Arguably, advocacy journalists serve the public interest in a similar way to muckrakers or whistle-blowers. Most advocacy journalists reject the supposed objectivity of the mainstream press as a practical impossibility, and some others take the position that the economic censorship exerted by corporate sponsors is no different than political censorship.

A hypothetical example of advocacy journalism

• In Anytown, USA, there is public conflict regarding opposition and support for building a large power plant. A local print or electronic media outlet opposed to the plant presents a five-part series accenting probable negative consequences the construction of the power plant would have on the town. The news outlet reports on questionable activities or policies of the builder, conflicts of interest between the builder and local politicians, and negative environmental impacts, but downplays anticipated benefits of the plant. The advocacy media outlets give coverage to local demonstrations and town meetings, but avoid interviewing credible supporters. In short, the advocacy news media outlets present selected facts in a compelling, well-researched manner, but avoid presenting credible opposition data.

Traditionally, advocacy and criticism are restricted to editorial and op-ed pages: a fire-wall exists between the editorial section and the newsroom. The Wall Street Journal, for example, has a policy of strict separation between the news desk and the editorial board; most major print and electronic news outlets do as well. In contrast, advocacy journalism takes a position on the issues of the day, and one is likely to observe subtle or obvious editorializing in reports. A television news presenter's facial expressions, a radio broadcaster's tone of voice, and the adjectives selected by print journalists, will indicate a discernible opinion regarding what is being reported.

Advocacy journalism is practiced by a broad range of mainstream media outlets and alternative media and special interest publications and programs, but might also apply to a single article in an otherwise-neutral publication, such as political stories in Rolling Stone; there are also "advocacy journals", or "alternative publications", which are marketed to target groups based on their interests or biases, for example:

• Print media: The Spotlight, The Nation, National Review, Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Economist, The Weekly Standard, L'Humanité, Libération, Charlie Hebdo, Le Canard Enchaîné, Knoxville Voice.

Advocacy journalism and U.S. media bias

In the United States, the practice of Advocacy Journalism by the mainstream domestic media outlets has raised questions relating to the possibility of systemic media bias in place of traditional reportage. In 2005, for instance, the board of PBS debated Advocacy journalism with regard to its programs, and subsequently reduced time and funding for the left-wing program Now with Bill Moyers, and expanded a show hosted by right-wing host Tucker Carlson. The Rathergate scandal at CBS news, which resulted in the resignation of Dan Rather, serves as an example of Advocacy Journalism with identifiable media bias.

In the U.S., complex national and global issues are often covered with the use of simple, key terms (examples: War on Terrorism, Terri Schiavo, Liberals, Conservatives, Neo-Cons, Weapons of mass destruction, Plame affair, Iran-Contra Affair, Watergate). These reports are often dismissed as "Advocacy journalism" by those under investigation with the intent of discrediting the news report as biased, casting doubt on the integrity of the reporter or the news media outlet from which the report was issued. In these instances, it can be seen that the existence of advocacy journalism has cast doubt on the truth of the story in question, and made it more difficult for the average consumer to establish the facts of the matter under discussion.

In some instances, media outlets may employ political figures as part of their staff. If the media outlet tends to draw from one political viewpoint to the exclusion of others, this would serve as an example of advocacy journalism. This practice should not be confused with paid-for political advertisement, or Public Awareness campaigns featuring political figures. Advocacy journalism presents a suggestion of fairness and neutrality while actually following an agenda. An example of this is the Armstrong Williams' scandal, in which a broadcaster was paid by the Bush administration to support the No Child Left Behind education plan.

The U.S. government has also made use of video news releases in domestic propaganda campaigns. In 2004 and 2005, Jeff Gannon was given access to the Whitehouse press corps with the intent that he ask questions crafted to allow the White House spokesperson (then Scott McClellan) and the president to give favorable answers which were understood to be the answer to be used by media outlets advocating the White House's overall public relations plan. These are examples of "advocacy journalism" masquerading as objective reportage. Perspectives from advocacy journalists One writer for the "alternative" journalism collaborative, the Independent Media Center, writes the following in a call to action:

Classic tenets of journalism call for objectivity and neutrality. These are antiquated principles no longer universally observed.... We must absolutely not feel bound by them. If we are ever to create meaningful change, advocacy journalism will be the single most crucial element to enable the necessary organizing. It is therefore very important that we learn how to be successful advocacy journalists. For many, this will require a different way of identifying and pursuing goals.

In an April 2000 address to the Canadian Association of Journalists, Sue Careless gave the following commentary and advice to advocacy journalists, which seeks to establish a common view of what journalistic standards the genre should follow.2

• Acknowledge your perspective up front.
• Be truthful, accurate, and credible. Don't spread propaganda, don't take quotes or facts out of context, "don't fabricate or falsify", and "don't fudge or suppress vital facts or present half-truths"
• Don't give your opponents equal time, but don't ignore them, either.
• Explore arguments that challenge your perspective, and report embarrassing facts that support the opposition. Ask critical questions of people who agree with you.
• Avoid slogans, ranting, and polemics. Instead, "articulate complex issues clearly and carefully."
• Be fair and thorough.
• Make use of neutral sources to establish facts.

Sue Careless also criticized the mainstream media for unbalanced and politically biased coverage, for economic conflicts of interest, and for neglecting certain public causes. She said that alternative publications have advantages in independence, focus, and access, which make them more effective public-interest advocates than the mainstream media.


The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, was founded in 1910. It describes itself as inheriting the tradition of advocacy journalism from Freedom's Journal, which began in 1827 as "the first African-American owned and operated newspaper published in the United States."

Muckrakers are often claimed as the professional ancestors of modern advocacy journalists; for example: Nellie Bly, Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, George Seldes, and I.F. Stone.

French newspapers Libération, Charlie Hebdo, Le Canard Enchaîné and L'Humanité all recuse what they consider pseudo-objective journalism for a purposeful explicited political stance on events. They oppose Le Monde neutral style, which doesn't impede it, according to those critics, from dissimulating various events or from abstaining to speak about certain subjects. On the other side, a newspaper like Le Figaro clearly assumes its conservative stance and pool of readers. Objectivity

Further information: Objectivity (journalism) and Objectivity (philosophy)

Advocacy journalists may reject the principle of objectivity in their work for several different reasons.

Many believe that there is no such thing as objective reporting, that there will always be some form of implicit bias, whether political, personal, or metaphysical, whether intentional or subconscious. This is not necessarily a rejection of the existence of an objective reality, merely a statement about our inability to report on it in a value-free fashion. This may sound like a radical idea, but many mainstream journalists accept the philosophical idea that pure "objectivity" is impossible, but still seek to minimize bias in their work. Other journalistic standards, such as balance, and neutrality, may be used to describe a more practical kind of "objectivity".

"Alternative" critics often charge that the mainstream's media claims of being "bias free" are harmful because they paper over inevitable (often subconscious) biases. They also argue that media sources claiming to be free of bias often advance certain political ideas which are disguised in a so-called "objective" viewpoint. These critics contend that the mainstream media reinforce majority-held ideas, marginalizing dissent and retarding political and cultural discourse.

The proposed solution is to make biases explicit, with the intention of promoting transparency and self-awareness that better serves media consumers. Advocacy journalists often assume that their audiences will share their biases (especially in politically charged alternative media), or will at least be conscious of them while evaluating what are supposed to be well-researched and persuasive arguments.

Some who believe that objective (or balanced, neutral, etc.) reporting is possible, or that it is a laudable goal, do not find that striving for objectivity is always an appropriate goal, perhaps depending on the publication and the purpose at hand. For example, it might be argued that when attempting to expose a waste, corruption, or abuse, a neutral position would "get in the way" of the exposition, and a "bias" against this kind of criminal activity would be quite acceptable to the intended audience.

Many advocacy journalists claim that they can reject objectivity while holding on to the goals of fairness and accuracy, and claim that corporate journalists often lack both.

Investigative reporting

In some instances, advocacy journalism is the same as investigative journalism and muckraking, where these serve the public interest and the public's right to know. Investigative reports often focus on criminal or unethical activity, or aim to advance a generally accepted public interest, such as government accountability, alleviation of human suffering, etc. It might be argued that the journalist is assuming a point of view that public action is warranted to change the situation being described. The most famous example of this was Edward R. Murrow's 'See it Now' series of reports on Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Criticism of advocacy journalism

Professional journalists and members of the public critical of the term assert that with the sacrifice of a measure of journalist objectivity you have bad journalism: reporting that does not serve the public interest. This is essentially editorializing or sensationalizing on the news pages or during electronic news media presentations. The editorializing is not announced but only advocated by the intrinsic structure of the report.

The term might also indicate a serious breach of journalistic canons and standards, such as rumor mongering, yellow journalism, sensationalism or other ethically flawed reportage — for example, the 2004 revelations created by a press leak in the Plame affair, where a leak was alleged to be used to help an office holder's political position. (However, a critic of that politician, publicly admitted to being the source of that leak, not the politician in question.)

Some fear the activity of advocacy journalists will be harmful to the reputation of the mainstream press as an objective, reliable source of information. Another concern is that undiscriminating readers will accept the facts and opinions advanced in advocacy pieces as if they were objective and representative, becoming unknowingly and perhaps dangerously misinformed as a result.

Advocacy journalists vary in their response to these criticisms. Some believe that mainstream and "alternative" outlets serve different purposes, and sometimes different audiences entirely, and that the difference is readily apparent to the public. Many believe that the mainstream press is not an objective and reliable source of information, and so doesn't deserve the reputation it seeks to maintain.

"Advocacy Journalism." Wikipedia. Retrieved on June 24, 2009.

In all likelihood advocacy journalism is the oldest form of reportage. It appears frequently whenever journalists desire to advocate their beliefs or ideas about major political or social problems. In Advocacy Journalists: A Biographical Dictionary of Writers and Editors, Edd Applegate identifies the most notable figures in this field. Each entry contains biographical information about a writer or editor who either wrote advocacy journalism or edited one or more publications that featured such material.

"Description of Applegate, Edd. Advocacy Journalists: A Biographical Dictionary of Writers and Editors. Lanham Maryland. Scarecrow Press. 2009. Retrieved on June 24, 2009.

I usually define myself as an activist journalist, by which I mean a journalist who is embedded in movements for social change – I identify with the movements I write about. I’m not a propagandist for those movements, I’m committed to the truth, I’m committed to fact-checking. But I’m proud to be associated with these movements and aligned with these movements. And of course I’m an author.

Klein, Naomi, "Naomi Klein on Activist Journalism." Mediahacker. Excerpted from interview on YouTube. Retrieved on July 1, 2009.

The James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism was established by Hunter College in 1990 to honor the distinguished Hunter College professor of journalism and editor from 1949 to 1967 of the crusading news weekly, The National Guardian....

The James Aronson Award is presented annually to journalism that measures business, governmental and social affairs against clear ideals of the common good. Of particular interest is work examining persistent, systemic social problems. Winning stories might scrutinize discrimination, economic injustice, civil liberties, free expression, particularly as these issues are complicated in an era of globalization and terrorism.

"The James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism." Hunter College. Retrieved on July 9, 2009.

Radical journalism in the 1930s and 1940s took new forms. The socialist-linked Seattle Labor College launched a newspaper in 1930 which helped galvanize one of the most effective unemployed movements in the country. By late 1931 the Unemployed Citizens League had tens of thousands of members organized in "self help" production and barter clubs.

"The Labor Press Project: Labor and Radical Newspapers in the Pacific Northwest." University of Washington. Retrieved on July 9, 2009.

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author ....

... Naomi Klein writes a regular column for The Nation and The Guardian that is syndicated internationally by The New York Times Syndicate. In 2004, her reporting from Iraq for Harper’s Magazine won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.

"About Naomi Klein." Naomi Klein. Website. Retrieved on July 1, 2009.