The term advocacy journalism describes the use of journalism techniques to promote a specific political or social cause. The term is potentially meaningful only in opposition to a category of journalism that does not engage in advocacy, so-called objective journalism .
This distinction tends to be a focus of attention in the United States, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, rather than elsewhere in the world; use of these terms does not necessarily translate to other political landscapes, though US (and more generally western) models are becoming dominant. In western Europe, some newspapers have long identified openly with a political position, even though journalists from these papers are considered professionals not typically engaged in advocacy. For example, in Italy Il Manifesto identifies itself as a communist newspaper philosophically but does not associate with any party and operates as a workers’ cooperative. In developing nations that have become independent since World War II, journalism was typically part of freedom movements in support of liberation from colonialism. Many independent publications retain the opposition to entrenched power, for example, the Hindu in India.
The press in the United States, which was distinctly partisan well into the nineteenth century, developed objectivity norms that now define the practices of corporate commercial news media. Many journalists found (and find) these norms constraining, and in the political fervor of the 1960s and 1970s, advocacy journalism emerged with counterculture and revolutionary political activity. Other terms used for practice outside the mainstream include alternative, gonzo, or new journalism. Within those forms, journalists may openly identify with a group or movement or remain independent while adopting similar values and political positions.
This advocacy/objectivity dichotomy springs from political theory that asserts a special role for journalists in complex democratic societies. Journalists’ claims to credibility are based in an assertion of neutrality. They argue for public trust by basing their report of facts, analysis, and opinion on rigorous information gathering. Professional self-monitoring produces what journalists consider an unbiased account of reality, rather than a selective account reflecting a guiding political agenda.
At one level, the term advocacy might be useful in distinguishing, for example, journalistic efforts clearly serving a partisan agenda (such as a political party publication) from those officially serving nonpartisan ends (such as a commercial newspaper). But the distinction is not really between forms of journalism as much as between persuasion and journalism. Although so-called objective journalism assumes that, as a rule, disinterested observers tend to produce more reliable reports, a publication advocating a cause might have more accurate information and compelling analysis than a nonpartisan one. The intentions of those writing and editing the publication are the key distinguishing factor.
More complex is categorizing different approaches to journalism by those not in the direct service of an organization or movement. Can those who advocate a particular philosophical or political perspective – but remain independent of a partisan group – produce journalism that the general public can trust?
An extended example is helpful here. In the general sense of the term, freelance reporter John Pilger (Australian-born, now living in the United Kingdom) could be considered an advocacy journalist, and New York Times reporter John Burns an objective journalist. Both are experienced and hard-working, with a sophisticated grasp of world affairs, and both have reported extensively about Iraq. Pilger writes primarily for newspapers and magazines in the UK but has a large following in the US, and he also is a documentary filmmaker. Burns writes almost exclusively for the Times but also gives frequent interviews on television and radio programs about his reporting. Antiwar and anti-empire groups circulate Pilger’s reports and screen his documentaries, but, like Burns, he describes himself as an independent journalist and rejects affiliations with any political groups.
However, Pilger is openly critical of US and UK policies toward Iraq, including unambiguous denunciations of the self-interested motivations and criminal consequences of state policies. His reporting leads him not only to describe these policies but to offer an analysis that directly challenges the framework of the powerful. Burns, in contrast, avoids such assessments, not only in news reports but also in articles labeled analysis. His reporting tends to accept the framework of the powers promoting these policies, and his criticism tends to question their strategy and tactics, not their basic motivations. In some sense, both journalists advocate a particular view of state power and how it operates in the areas they cover. Both have reputations for accurate reporting: the difference lies in their interpretations. In the language of mainstream journalism Burns would be considered objective but not Pilger.
This example illustrates the limits of conceptions of journalism as practiced in the media industries, especially those under corporate commercial control. All reporters use a framework of analysis to understand the world and report on it. But reporting that contains open references to underlying political assumptions and conclusions seems to engage in advocacy, while the more conventional approach appears neutral. Both are independent in the sense of not being directed by a party or movement, but neither approach is in fact neutral. One explicitly endorses a political perspective critical of the powerful, while the other implicitly reinforces the political perspective of the elite.
Accounts of the world, including journalistic ones, must begin from some assumptions about the way the world works. None is neutral. Further research and examples from countries outside of North America and Europe would enrich the literature of advocacy journalism.
- Collings, A. (2001). Words of fire: Independent journalists who challenge dictators, druglords, and other enemies of a free press. New York: New York University Press.
- Kessler, L. (1984). The dissident press: Alternative journalism in American history. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Mindich, D. T. Z. (1998). Just the facts: How “objectivity” came to define American journalism. New York: New York University Press.
- Streitmatter, R. (1995). Unspeakable: The rise of the gay and lesbian press in America. Boston: Faber and Faber.