Journalism vs. Activism:

What’s the difference? Does it matter? And who gets to decide?

What’s the difference between a journalist and an activist? Not much, if you ask me. Activists simply recognize and accept that their goal is to create a better world (whatever that means). Meanwhile, most journalists apparently want the same thing but, for some reason, seem to have a really hard time admitting it.

“Traditional journalism” has long been obsessed with the notion of objectivity. According to this philosophy, journalists are supposed to be unbiased and objective in their reporting. Straight facts. Nothing else. As a journalist, you’re supposed do everything in your power to remove yourself and your take on the world from your reporting.

Obviously, this is an impossible task. The idea that you can completely rid yourself of your biases and personal predilections is utter nonsense. Deciding to write about a certain topic or choosing to interview a particular expert automatically betrays a certain bias on behalf of the journalist. In fact, all this really does is give journalists a clever way to inject their own biases and views into their work under the cover of expert opinions and carefully selected quotes.

For example, if I want to help sway public opinion in favor of a developer or an oil company but I don’t want to come off as biased, all I have to do is use other people’s words to make my point. Even better, I can structure my article in such a way that seems like I’m providing a balanced look at an issue, but really I’m stacking the deck in favor of my own view. One way to accomplish this is to simply put the quotes that support my views at the end, giving them the benefit of the last word. (Dr. Environment says the new pipeline “will ruin the town’s drinking water,” but Dr. Exxon says the pipe line is totally safe and that “the only real threat to the community is the potential loss of jobs if the company decides to move its operations overseas.”)

You don’t even have to use quotes to inject bias. All it takes is one bougie editor who doesn’t think a story about a labor dispute is important because they’ve never had to worry about things like job security or workers’ rights. Next thing you know, that story drops below the fold and, voila! Bias.

I deal with this everyday when choosing the stories to include in the newsletter for the NJ News Commons. I usually only include about four or five stories a day, so I have to pick the ones that I think are most important for people to know about. But this gives rise to other questions: Which people? What do I mean by important? Important to whom? Important to black people? Women? Transfolk? Workers? Rich people? The list goes on.

It’s incredibly stressful, but it highlights what I think is one of the real points of distinction between journalists and activists: Activists don’t have an obligation to report on things that they think might be detrimental to their cause or distract from a particular narrative. Journalists, on the other hand, are obligated (or at least expected) to report all the facts — even if they go against a particular narrative or movement they subscribe to.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all activists are manipulative, Machiavellian pragmatists, and it certainly doesn’t mean that all journalists adhere to their mandates. But I think it does help shed some light on this particular war of the words. Is there a difference between activism and journalism? Barely. But if there is a difference, it’s that one has to play by a set of arbitrary rules set in place during a bygone era, and the other has to deal with the inevitable dismissal and scorn that comes from playing by your own set of rules.

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