Journalist as Organizer, Advocate, and Educator

“Community organizer” sounds like a punchline to a Fox News joke about Barack Obama. But if news organizations are to serve communities, they often need to act as community organizers to marshal the forces of communities in very practical ways: listening to their needs, drawing their attention to an issue, convening them to gather together and discuss the issue, urging them to action, and helping them reach their goals. That would seem to violate our professional myths of objectivity and distance — that, like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, we operate under a Prime Directive not to interfere with other life forms, only to observe them. But the truth is that news organizations have long convened communities to take action — isn’t that our desired outcome in investigative (that is, crusading) journalism: to get our readers to demand action of government, to have an impact, to bring change? I’ll avoid the tired battle over journalistic objectivity and confess that on this question I have a strongly held belief: We are not objective.

If traditionalists in my field haven’t already crumpled up this essay — or whatever one does in disgust, post-paper, with a digital screen — at my contentions that we are not in the content business and are not first storytellers, this may cause them to strike a match or pull the plug. Still, I’ll go even farther and argue this: If it isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism. Isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As the late Columbia Journalism Professor James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.” When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of objectivity — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and cover ups, that is advocacy. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that is advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that is advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that is advocacy on your behalf. When an editor decides to cover a crime in this neighborhood but not that one, she is advocating for the allocation of attention to the first. When TV news breathlessly covers lottery jackpots with no mention of the social cost, it is advocating for a regressive redistribution of collective wealth. When a critic pans a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey, that is advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore — and I say that having been one).

What about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, which has no wider impact than a few blocks around? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of a crime of passion that affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? Sorry, but no. When any alleged news organization “reports” on some celebrity’s inanities, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no. (And I must also confess, I worked for People magazine.)

Of course, there are limitations to advocacy. We don’t want to return to the days when newspapers were the organs of political parties, doing their bidding. What separates us from that past — besides the economic support we receive from advertisers — is our independence and intellectual honesty, our ethics and standards, our credibility. That is what defines journalism versus mere advocacy. Quoting Michael Oreskes, a top editor at The New York Times and then the Associated Press: “Standards, practices, and ethics are the core. Without them, it isn’t journalism.” As an example of maintaining intellectual honesty, I would use the Guardian and its coverage of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency. The Guardian’s stated mission is to be the world’s leading liberal voice; can’t be much more of an advocate than that. Still, its NSA coverage has put a liberal U.S. administration in a most difficult bind. Thus the Guardian advocates for freedom and rights and an effective democracy, not for a political side. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed). The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it added journalistic value. Edward Snowden, like WikiLeaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents to the paper’s journalists. In both cases, the Guardian added value by using its judgment to redact what could be harmful, by bringing audience to the revelations, and most important, by adding reporting to verify and explain this raw information.

So what is it then, this stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve a public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait. At best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, for entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a film — can inform and enlighten. But if what you do doesn’t carry information that people can use to better manage their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test. Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But it was a mistake to open the journalistic umbrella over all the content we created and called journalism. If a newspaper creates journalism, then everything its newsroom employees create in that newspaper is journalism, right? No.

So then why not embrace our advocacy and make sure it is put to good use? Why not measure the outcomes and impact of our work on the basis of what is accomplished? Why not partner with communities to use our abilities to help them meet their needs? If we do that, then we must measure our success by how much we have helped a community accomplish its goals. And we must rethink our job descriptions and the skills needed to fill them.

Alan Rusbridger, the brilliant editor-in-chief of the Guardian, talks about his idea of fast and slow journalism. Fast journalism is the obvious: covering what is happening now with updates and alerts and reports; it’s what we do. Slow journalism can take many shapes. I would not define it as long-form writing; more on that later. I wonder whether slow journalism can include research of the sort universities have done, bringing greater expertise, analysis, and effort to inform the discussion of a topic and the policy developed as a result. Should a newspaper be a think tank? I wonder whether slow journalism can include advocacy: journalists and public joining together to meet common goals. The Guardian does not shy away from the idea that journalism is a cause. Should the paper and its American readers, for example, take on the end of capital punishment as a goal, bringing not only reporting but also opinion and organization to the task?

One more role for journalists to consider: educator. That does not mean we should be lecturers, continuing a one-way flow of content directed at a passive audience. A true educator empowers students to experiment, share, and build on their own, according to their abilities, desires, and needs. So, after discerning an individual’s or a community’s needs, journalists and their organizations can teach people how to fulfill them. As with much I’ve outlined here, there’s not much new at the core of that notion. Service journalism has long taught readers how to accomplish what they want — to get a new job or a mortgage, to use a new technology, to understand an issue. What’s new is that the net provides us with a feedback loop that allows us to see how well we succeed at advancing knowledge, understanding, and impact. Like a good teacher, we must ask whether our work leaves our users and our communities better informed, wiser, better able to meet their goals and their potential.

Earlier, I defined journalism as helping a community organize its knowledge to better organize itself. Was that too broad? Perhaps. Now I define journalism as advocacy. Is that too narrow? Yes. But in a time when journalism as a trade and an industry faces economic challenges — mortal threats, even — it is vital that we understand what we must save: the essence of journalism. Journalism is not covering fires and football and fairs. Journalism is helping citizens and communities meet their needs and accomplish their goals. Journalism is a tool to improve society. Once we have reduced journalism to an understanding of its essence — the journalism we cannot do without — then we can expand again. We need to recognize the new means that geeks have given us to meet those goals. We need to rethink the forms journalism can take to improve its effectiveness and quality. We need to cut newsrooms to their essence, find economic sustainability for that vital asset, and then start growing again. Then we can look past communities’ needs to their desires. Then we can define journalism expansively. Then, yes, we can cover football and fairs. But I still want to convince TV news to stop covering every damned fire.

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