Saving Pvt. Journalism, Part 8

Reposting from Blackfive in case my archives can’t be recovered.  Originally posted June 23, 2003

In my opinion, one of the largest problems facing real journalism today is the practice of advocacy journalism. To my mind, advocacy and journalism are an oxymoron as to dwarf any other two words of your choice, from military and intelligence to politician and trust.

Advocacy journalism is in many ways a child of the 1960s, though it claims roots to the start of the century. It was then that stories broke about the conditions, and ingredients, in the meat industry and in the food industry in general. The stories, which if my not so great memory serves were actually discovered by a book author and then picked up by the newspapers, are alleged to have made the then President physically ill. The government enacted laws to help protect both the workers and the consumers, and good things are supposed to have been done.

The actual good done by some of the laws can be debated, and by others it can not be disputed, but it set a precedent in terms of journalism that has become somewhat distorted with time. Rather than exposes of fact and then let the reader and government decide as happened earlier, advocacy journalism takes the “for the greater good” approach. The reporters go in with an agenda, gather facts to support that agenda, and usually push one particular means of solving “the problem” as the only realistic solution.

Problems abound with such an approach. For one, facts are rarely presented in a clear and unbiased manner. Facts which might mitigate the impact of “the problem” tend to get distorted or dropped; facts which support other approaches to solving the problem also tend to get short shrift; and, the reporter has violated both the tenets of journalism and the tenets of rational investigation: observe, hypothesize, test, refine, and theory.

Journalism owes a great deal to the scientific method and the idea of natural or rational investigation. It has helped shape modern journalism on several levels, including the philosophical ideal that facts can be studied, judged, and combined so that a reasonable course of action can be determined for any situation. What many or most practitioners of advocacy journalism fail to consider is that many different courses of action can often be built from the same set of facts.

As advocates, they have given up any pretext of being observers, much less impartial observers, and become a part of the process. As such, they blind themselves to facts, nuances, and alternatives. There is a great danger of becoming a zealot in the cause, and falling prey to the shortcomings of same. Anyone who disagrees with you, no matter how slight, or suggests even a slightly different course of action, is the enemy and must be destroyed.

This is particularly true in terms of environmental advocacy journalism. The underlying ideals and philosophies get lost, and often in my opinion, the prevailing idea of man equals bad becomes the unspoken bedrock of what is “reported.” Most stories present complicated ideas in very simplistic terms, leaving accuracy in the dust. The Earth’s environment is an extremely complex system and we are not yet even close to fully understanding all of its components, much less being able to model them.
Yet, this is rarely brought out in most stories. This is close to being criminal, given that trying to base actions, particularly remedial actions, on the basis of just a few dimensions out of a few million dimensions or levels, can actually do more damage than good.

Advocacy journalism actually started with a good idea: expose problems, suggest solutions, and push for change. This quickly was lost to the practice of exposing and exaggerating problems for the hype, push one solution and attack all others, and demand change at any cost without due process.
None of this is acceptable, nor is it good journalism. It is time to end this practice within serious journalism and real media outlets.

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