Why journalists should (at least sometimes) be activists..

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From Dan Gillmour

At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, this week, I gave a talk entitled “Why Journalists Should be Activists,” and apart from a few departures from the text below, here’s what I said:

Two months ago, a New York Times journalist, investigative reporter James Risen, went on Twitter to denounce the Obama administration’s attitude toward the press. The administration, he said, was the “greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”

Risen’s tirade became a topic of conversation in the community of people who watch and comment on journalism. Some said a reporter shouldn’t be expressing such thoughts publicly, because it might cause readers to question his – and his newspaper’s – commitment to objective reporting. But the newspaper’s editor in charge of of journalism standards told Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor,  that Risen had done the right thing.

“In general,” this editor said, “our reporters understand that they don’t and shouldn’t editorialize on issues we cover….I would put this in a different category.”

What category? Freedom of the press, of course. And he was right.

This was an important moment in the history of the New York Times. It was officially admitting that it is not neutral – isn’t pretending to be neutral – on this topic. The Times, as an organization, was taking an activist stance—far from its traditional role of observer and reporter.

I’m here to suggest to you today that all journalists need to think of themselves as activists in the world we now live in.

Before I explain this further, let me first explain what I mean by journalism and activism. Journalism can include so many things, ranging from deep investigative work to fluffy entertainment, but for our purposes I think of it as helping people understand they world they live in, so they can make better decisions about how they live. This often involves telling truth to the rich and powerful, and uncovering things that the rich and powerful would prefer to keep secret. It also involves being thorough, accurate, fair, independent and – this is not done enough – transparent. Journalism is vital to liberty, because it is a cornerstone of free speech.

For activism, I’ll simply use the dictionary definition: “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” I’d add to that – sometimes activism is campaigning to stop things from happening.

In many parts of this world, doing real journalism is activism—because truth telling in some societies is an act designed to bring about change. I’m humbled by the people who risk their freedom, and sometimes their lives, to tell their fellow citizens and the rest of the world what is happening where they live. You will be hearing from one of them in the next talk.

In the western democracies with a more robust tradition of free speech and a free press, the idea of journalists as activists is often seen as taking sides in contravention of journalistic norms. But there’s a long and honorable history of what we call “advocacy journalism” – we could easily call it “activist journalism” – exposing injustices with the absolute goal of stirring public anger, and then public action to bring about change. In America, the people we called muckrakers in the early 20th century did brilliant journalism of this kind. Today filmmaker Laura Poitras, who’ll be speaking here by video this evening, and her colleagues are among many others who are carrying on that tradition. (Do see CitizenFour, by the way; it’s brilliant.)

Also today, we have a new category of journalism in this realm – journalism being done by people who are advocates first, and media producers second. I’m talking about Human Rights Watch, which consistently brilliant reporting on human rights issues around the world.

I’m talking about the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization in my own country that consistently does some of the best journalism – in several senses of the word – about threats to our fundamental liberties. In the interest of transparency, I should mention that my fantastically talented nephew, Daniel Kahn Gillmor, works with the ACLU.

In the past, these organizations and NGOs like them around the world were doing the journalism. But to get it seen they had to persuade traditional media organizations to care about, and then to publish or broadcast, reports based on the information the NGOs had collected. Now, in the digital age, every organization of any kind is also a media enterprise, and can go more directly to the public. Collaborations with traditional journalists are still helpful, but no longer as absolutely necessary as they were. We journalists should be welcoming the advocates to the journalism ecosystem – and recognizing them for their work. By the way, the American Civil Liberties Union probably litigates more open-records cases on issues related to liberty, using the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, than all traditional news organizations put together.

Now, I’m not saying all advocates are doing journalism – far from it. In many cases we’re getting untrue, unfair propaganda. We need know the difference, as journalists and as members of the public – that’s another talk entirely.

So we have a baseline of journalistic activism – all around us and often incredibly valuable – on a variety of topics. It makes many traditional journalists, especially in my country, uncomfortable. Why? Because we’re told, again and again, that one of journalism’s core values is objectivity and/or neutrality.

But even those journalists who worship at the altar of objectivity should recognize that on at least some issues, they cannot possibly be objective. Or at least, they should not be. On some issues we have to take stands, even though those stands may put us at policy odds with the people and institutions we cover.

What are these issues? The New York Times has picked one: freedom of the press. I hope no one here would dispute the need to take a stand for press freedom.

But I’d suggest this is only one of several policy issues where journalists who do not take activists stands are unfit to call themselves journalists. They all come under larger topics that are at the core of liberty, among them: freedom of expression, freedom to associate, freedom to collaborate, freedom to innovate.

We can’t be neutral here. We should be openly biased toward openness and freedom. Period.

Powerful governments and corporations are leading the attack against these core values, usually in the name of protecting us or giving us more convenience. In the process, these powerful entities are creating a host of choke points. They’re doing their best to lock down a lot of our computing and communications, and creating a system of control by others over what we say and do online.

This is a betrayal of the Internet’s decentralized promise, where speech and innovation and collaboration would often start at the edges of this network of networks, where no one needed permission to do those things. Choke points mean we have to ask permission.

What are these choke points? The most obvious is what’s happening to the Internet itself. Start with direct censorship, a growing trend in far too many parts of the world. I can’t imagine anyone here would object to journalistic activism on this front.

Surveillance, too, has become a method for government — often working with big companies — to keep track of what journalists and activists are doing—going way beyond the mission of stopping terrorism and solving major crimes. Surveillance is having a measurable chilling effect on freedom of expression, and no society that exists under pervasive surveillance can claim to enjoy basic liberty. We know from history that it deadens innovation and culture. If we don’t actively oppose mass surveillance, we’re not fit to call ourselves journalists.

Another choke point is the telecommunications industry. In America and many other countries– and often in concert with governments– big telecoms say they should have the right to decide what bits of information get to people’s devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get there at all. This is what the network neutrality debate is all about in the U.S.: whether we, at the edges of the networks, or the telecom companies that provide the access to the Internet, get to make those decisions. If we don’t campaign for open and truly competitive networks, we’re not fit to call ourselves journalists.

“Intellectual property” is a valuable concept, but it’s also a choke point. Hollywood and its allies try to lock down or control innovative technologies that threaten incumbent companies’ business models. They’re abusing the patent and copyright systems, among other tactics. And they never, ever quit. The latest sneak attack from this crowd comes in a secretly negotiated treaty called the Trans Pacific Partnership is the latest attempt by the intellectual property cartel to prevent innovation, and speech, that it can’t control—among many other bad effects. (We know about some of this because Wikileaks has published drafts of several chapters of this immense treaty.) If we don’t explain to the public what is happening, and then campaign for a more open process and for the right to innovate, we are unfit to call ourselves journalists.

Speaking of Wikileaks, let’s mention another choke point: the major payment systems  like Mastercard, Visa and PayPal. They almost shut down Wikileaks with a funding blackout. Only a few news organizations noticed, much less complained. Yet if you can’t get paid for your work, how do you plan to put food on your table? The centralized payment industry holds enormous power, by proxy, over journalists’ ability to make a living. If we don’t campaign against its arbitrary decisions, we’re not fit to call ourselves journalists.

Now let’s be honest about something: We’ve helped create some of the choke points — by choosing convenience over liberty in relying centralized Internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Google. I have to note that these companies do provide useful services. And they are often trying to be advocates for free speech, though not consistently.

But do journalists understand that the Internet is getting new editors, namely the people who work for some of those companies? Do journalists understand that by feeding Facebook they are feeding a company that will be their biggest financial competitor? If this was only a business issue I wouldn’t raise it. But it’s much more than that. This is about whether the terms of service at a tiny number of giant companies, as opposed to the First Amendment and other laws like it, will effectively determine our free speech rights. If we aren’t activists for open, decentralized technology and communications, we are unfit to call ourselves journalists.

The corporate online powers are also spying on us. It’s their business model. Journalists are waking up to this, more so in Europe than in the U.S., but we all need to be thinking harder about how companies can use and abuse big data. If we aren’t campaigning for privacy from corporations, not just governments, we are unfit to call ourselves journalists.

I’m not asking journalists to ignore nuances in any of this; life and business and policy truly are complicated. But when it comes to things that directly threaten perhaps our the most fundamental liberties—without which journalism is vastly more difficult if not impossible—there’s no excuse for failing to explain what’s at stake. Nor is there any excuse for failing to take more direct action.

Core freedoms – of expression, association, and more – should be everyone’s right. Journalists have a duty to be their defenders.

So I ask this of my journalism friends: Take stands, loudly and proudly. Be activists. Unless you prefer a world of choke points and control by others, this is part of your job.
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One Comment

Reverend Jane Eagle April 21, 2015 at 5:18 pm

I must be old-school: to me, Journalism, done right, IS activism.