WHERE DOES JOURNALISM END AND ACTIVISM BEGIN? This Polarized Political Moment Raises Fresh Questions in Newsrooms about the Line Reporting and Advocacy

By Blanding, Michael | Nieman Reports, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

WHERE DOES JOURNALISM END AND ACTIVISM BEGIN? This Polarized Political Moment Raises Fresh Questions in Newsrooms about the Line Reporting and Advocacy


Blanding, Michael, Nieman Reports


THE DAY AFTER the March for Our Lives last spring, Rebecca Schneid, co-editor of the high school newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a shooter killed 17 people in February 2018, appeared on CNN. "I see a lot of Parkland students becoming activists, but you all were there as journalists," host Brian Stelter observed about Schneid and other students of the school paper, The Eagle Eye, who were covering the protest. The march drew more than 200,000 people to advocate for gun control less than six weeks after the school shooting. "Do you see a difference right now between journalism and activism in what you are doing?"

Wearing two bright pins, one reading "Enough is Enough," next to her body mic, Schneid barely missed a beat. "I think that for me, the purpose of journalism is to raise the voices of people who maybe don't have a voice," she said. "And so I think that in its own right, journalism is a form of activism."

She went on to qualify her statement, saying, "There is a distinction for me, as a journalist, and also someone who wants to demand change, but I think the partnership of the two is the only reason that we are able to make change."

As soon as CNN tweeted the first part of her quote, Twitter erupted. Comment after comment accused Schneid of failing to understand the difference between journalism and propaganda.

"Journalism is covering a story and giving us the facts, then allowing us, the reader or viewer, to make up our mind," read a typical response. Others were harsher, including some piling on Stelter for not challenging the statement--seeing it as evidence of the network's liberal bias.

As Danielle Tcholakian, who teaches journalism at the New School, noted in Longreads, Schneid's critics included some professional journalists, such as the National Journal's Josh Kraushaar, who blamed journalism education for not doing enough to inculcate objectivity in the next generation. "It's this mentality that's killing trust in our profession," Kraushaar wrote.

Other reporters, however, defended Schneid, with the Los Angeles Times's Matt Pearce pointing out that "Choosing what you want people to know is a form of activism, even if it's not the march-and-protest kind." Washington Post national reporter Wesley Lowery agreed, saying, "Any good journalist is an activist for truth, in favor of transparency, on the behalf of accountability."

Journalism has long been committed to unbiased reporting and to shining a light on injustices in society. The tension between those two mandates has become more apparent in the current polarized political moment, when groups such as Black Lives Matter and the Parkland students clamor against the status quo, and the #MeToo movement has brought activism into the newsroom itself--causing some journalists to question where journalism ends and activism begins.

Two issues stand out: the feeling in many newsrooms that there are not two sides to some issues--for example, LGBT rights or white supremacy--and the ongoing debate about whether reporters can or should express political views outside the newsroom, such as on social media, and take part in marches or other forms of political demonstration.

When the president says there are "very fine people" on both sides of a white nationalist rally, is it objectivity or activism to call that racist?

When hundreds of thousands of women take to the National Mall in a march for female rights and empowerment, does it cross a line for a journalist to stand with them?

When the rights of transgender people are under attack, is it wrong for a transgender journalist to speak up for equality?

The debate in some cases breaks down along generational lines, with older journalists likely to maintain the separation between news and opinion while younger journalists see less distinction between their personal and public personas. …

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