As a former broadcast journalist and current journalism educator, I was interested in a recent USA Today story (March 5, 2007) examining how more and more journalists are taking on the role of advocate in their reporting. It especially caught my attention because the issue of a journalist’s intent was discussed in one of my Point Park University classes.
The story indicated that in an effort to separate themselves (or their organization) from the pack, these journalists are attempting to "own" a story. NBC’s Chris Hansen’s reporting about "predators" seeking sexual activity with minors, ABC’s Bob Woodruff’s efforts to expose the inadequate medical care provided to many military veterans, and CNN’s Lou Dobbs’ non-stop criticism of global economic policies and immigration are just three examples highlighted by the newspaper.
I see this debate as to whether a journalist should be adopting such advocacy roles as an excellent teaching tool; it challenges educators to more fully explain current journalism practices, and it also allows us (and our students) to acknowledge and analyze motives. But it is also an important discussion for the general public. Perhaps the most obvious question is this: Do we want our reporters abandoning their traditional role of objectivity and instead pursuing stories that go beyond simple reporting? Do we want a reporter becoming so intimately involved in a story that when we think of the issue (i.e. illegal immigration), we automatically think of a reporter (in this case, Dobbs) constantly beating that drum?
I’ll admit to hearing what some readers might already be saying: Journalists cannot be objective; they certainly have opinions and attitudes about their stories and sources, and these feelings make objectivity an antiquated notion. My response is this: Journalists are not expected not to care, not to like, not to have emotions; but they are expected to omit their feelings from their reporting. As I see it, if they cannot do that, they ought not continue reporting.
Educators remind their students of always being cognizant of any agenda a particular source might have and then not to fall prey to it in their reporting. In other words, our students are admonished not to simply report what someone says. They need to seek out other opinions, facts and sources; compare what someone says to what someone does; and, when necessary, point up discrepancies, inconsistencies, personal motives or failed policies. Doing so does not fail the objectivity test; it passes the completeness test required of all news stories.
We must apply the same standards to our colleagues who want to make themselves different. At first blush it appears easy to criticize Hansen as being just another attention-seeker while perhaps recognizing Woodruff for doing something more noble. But let us also acknowledge that Woodruff’s near-death experience in Iraq and his subsequent recovery have been turned into a book. (For those who do not remember, Woodruff, then the co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, went to Iraq and in early 2006 while preparing a story suffered devastating head injuries that nearly killed him.) I’m not implying that he is seeking to sell more books by talking about medical care for veterans, but I am saying that we don’t (can't?) know that he is not.
Let’s also make this point clear: the journalist as advocate is not the same thing as the journalist practicing what has widely become known as civic journalism. In such an arrangement, reporters and their news organizations seek public input in solving the problems that exist in a community. In addition, discussions about these issues take a kind of "bottom up" not "top down" approach. The citizen becomes not only a source of information but a potential advocate for a solution.
Advocacy journalism, instead, involves journalists advancing their agendas. It is "top down", in other words. They are attempting to highlight a problem that they believe exists and needs to be fixed. And I think "highlight" is the critical term to consider. Take NBC’s Hansen as an example. No sane person wants adult men preying on teenagers and seeking sex from them. However, is this an issue that a national news organization needs to repeatedly devote time and attention to? Sure, it might attract strong ratings, but is that a sufficient justification?
Furthermore, we should be asking how often Hansen goes beyond simply playing "gotcha" to explore the underlying causes for this type of behavior. Stepping out of the corner and asking a man why he is alone in a house with an underage person is not doing that. Instead, Hansen, in a kind of personal sting operation, goes in, rounds up the criminals, hands them over to the authorities as if he were Zorro making the world safer for us all. The only thing he doesn’t do is personally apply the handcuffs. That’s a very different approach from interviewing the police (and perhaps the criminals who were caught in a legitimate sting operation), documenting why the investigation was necessary and undertaken, what the potential ramifications are, and then letting the system do its job.
Another issue that needs to be dissected is the motives of the journalist as advocate. At the risk of oversimplification, the question we need to ask is: Do journalists pursue these agendas because they believe in the issue, or is their real agenda calling attention to themselves (and by extension generating a larger reader or viewer base)? If the answer is the latter, then shame on them. But I would encourage you to hold your applause – at least for a moment – if the answer turns out to be the former.
The so-called muckraking journalists of the early 20th century have become recognized as men and women who journalists ought to aspire to be. They uncovered instances of illegal or immoral activity, then exposed them and the people responsible. They became, again at the risk of oversimplification, the pioneers of investigative journalism. I do not see advocacy journalists falling into the same category. I would argue the difference is this: the investigative journalist finds the problem, examines why it exists, then challenges other responsible parties to fix it. The advocacy journalist also finds the problem, also examines why it exists, but then appears either unwilling or unable to hand it over to someone else. I’m of the opinion Dobbs already has crossed that line and Hansen is right there along side him. Woodruff’s efforts are too fresh at this point to be fully judged. I remind you, the USA Today story makes it clear these are not the only three journalists engaging in this kind of advocacy.
If it is irresponsible for a journalist to not let go of a story, then I ask if the Hansens, Woodruffs or Dobbses of the world ever deserve applause for their advocacy? If the reporter seeks to be part of the story, is this good for the practice of journalism? Is it ethical? Should it be rewarded?
I’ll admit I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of journalists having any agenda. But I also wonder if in this multi-channel, 24-hour news universe if they have little choice. News has become a commodity, and news organizations are expected to be profitable. In such an environment, the journalist might have no choice but to stake their claim to a story. Panning for gold suddenly comes to mind.
The conversation will continue in my classrooms and with my students.