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Activist journalism should not be the norm

Published: November 22, 2013
Section: Opinions

A few weeks ago, as I was reading The New York Times on my phone during the cold, solitary walk to my 9 a.m. class, my eyes happened to glance over an opinion piece titled “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?” Since Glenn Greenwald was the first journalist to publish the classified NSA files leaked by Edward Snowden, the title piqued my interest. It turns out that the piece was written by Bill Keller, the former editor-in-chief of The Times, in a sort of back-and-forth conversation style. The “conversation” in this case was between Keller and Greenwald himself about the merits of “activist journalism,” with Keller questioning the consistency between the tendencies of “activist journalism” and what is traditionally expected of journalists, and Greenwald countering by arguing that “activist journalism” should instead be encouraged and actually is a better form of journalism. I didn’t get to read the end of the article, because my professor was barking at me to put my phone away and pay attention, but it did get me thinking about what “appropriate” journalism should entail.

For those of you who either don’t know or aren’t sure of what I mean by “activist journalism,” it is more or less a form of journalism where the journalist or author approaches his assignments and investigations with an agenda or cause at the forefront of his or her mind. In Greenwald’s case, that was and continues to be the exposing of espionage activities of the U.S. and other western governments.

This is a concept that I vehemently disagree with. Journalists have traditionally been impartial investigators who look for the truth in order to keep the public aware and to impose some accountability on those in power. The kind of journalism that those such as Greenwald advocate for is one where journalists become heavily opinionated commentators, which results in pieces and articles that seem to be trying to convince the reader of something rather than simply laying out the facts. I’m not saying that it is wrong to have an opinion as a journalist. In fact, it is simply unrealistic to expect that when journalists go out to investigate something they won’t form personal opinions of their own. But we already have a way for journalists to explicitly express such opinions: the opinion pages. If a journalist feels strongly about expressing their opinion on a particular event or issue they can write and publish an op-ed about it, just as I’m doing right now. But for decades we, the consumers of such forms of media, have come to expect journalists who write articles for the front pages to uphold a principle of impartiality and suppress their opinions and emotions to the extent that they can.

To further illustrate the marked difference between “activist journalism” and the more traditional style of journalism, allow me to demonstrate what I believe to be the biggest drawback of “activist journalism.” The usual course of action for an impartial journalist investigating a particular issue would be to first do the research with an open mind, find out the facts and different opinions from different points of view then lay them out in the most succinct way in the form of an article. The writer lets the facts speak for themselves and invites the reader to draw their own conclusions from the given facts.

The partisan journalist, on the other hand, dives in to the investigation already armed with the conclusion he or she wants to prove. Anybody see a problem? That’s right—it’s confirmation bias. When the writer is already committed to a point of view from the start, he or she risks losing objectivity and taking evidence out of its proper context, with which the evidence might actually have a much weaker effect.

Finally, I’d like to specifically address an argument that Greenwald proposes in his exchange with Keller. Greenwald states that “human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value in pretending otherwise?” I would say that there is a pretty high value in that act. To be clear, journalists aren’t “pretending” that they don’t have opinions of their own; they are suppressing them as much as possible to protect the integrity of professional and objective journalism. We have expected that much from major, reputable publications for generations now, and this new approach that is emerging completely throws all of that out. Sure it might be more “boring” as Greenwald claims, but at least we know that what we are reading is not tainted by blatant bias. In any case, if what is being covered is so heinous, wrong or immoral then I’m sure the majority of readers will reach similar conclusions from the facts, without needing the author to tell them what to think.

The faculty of journalism and reporting is a much more delicate thing than most people realize. The neutrality of the industry does the public a great service by being truly objective observers who can keep the actions of public officials accountable, so much so that the right of freedom for the press is protected by the First Amendment. If this trend of increasingly partisan reporting of the facts continues, we risk destroying the sanctity of the institution of journalism and greatly diminishing its significant value to society.