The polarized political moment raises fresh questions in newsrooms about the line between reporting and advocacy
The day after the March for Our Lives this 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, 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.”
Even as journalism is overlapping with activism in some ways, some activists are also venturing into journalism
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’ 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.
Alfredo Carbajal, president of the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and managing editor of Dallas-based Al Día, says being a journalist comes with certain sacrifices: “We are giving up the prerogatives most citizens have to express our point of view. I cannot maintain credibility if I make a distinction between, this is what I see as a person and this is what I see as a journalist.”
For some younger journalists, however, their identity is intimately wrapped up with their writing. “I think as the journalism industry crumbles, this may be where the generational divide comes in,” says Peter Moskowitz, 29, a freelance writer for outlets such as news and opinion site Splinter, The Outline, and Vice. Moskowitz covered the Charlottesville white supremacy rally for Splinter and wrote a first-person piece for The Outline about the rally, including seeing the car that drove into the crowd, killing counterprotester Heather Heyer.
“I would consider writing a part of my activism,” Moskowitz says. “There is no way to separate these things. If you are writing for mainstream news, you are still advocating for something, you just are not stating what you are advocating for.”
As newsrooms have become—haltingly—more diverse, a new layer has been added to the debate. “The view from nowhere in the classical tradition was the white, male privileged point of view,” says Indira Lakshmanan, ethics chair at the Poynter Institute. In revising their ethical standards, Lakshmanan says, publications have been giving up the idea of objectivity in favor of other words like “impartiality” or “accuracy” to better reflect the idea that journalists always approach issues with a point of view based on their backgrounds and experience.
Even publications that cover specific issues, often funded through philanthropy, strive to find a balance between advocacy and objectivity. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller is now editor of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit that draws attention to problems in the U.S. criminal justice system. Keller says he maintains the same standards as he did at the Times when it comes to journalists expressing personal views. He sees the project’s mission as providing information about the system—even ways in which the system is broken—rather than advocating for particular ways to fix it. “We supply credible information anyone can cite in pursuit of their own aims,” Keller says. “But we don’t prescribe, we don’t endorse, we want to provide people with the information to make up their own mind.”
Even as journalism is overlapping with activism in some ways, some activists are also venturing into journalism. As a recent story in Columbia Journalism Review illustrates, the democratization of the web has caused activist organizations, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Greenpeace, to post original content that goes beyond mere press releases. The team of reporters at the ACLU, for example, publishes up to 20 stories a week on its site; one recent story about concerns with Amazon’s partnership with government around its facial recognition software featured in-depth reporting, including public records requests to expose the issue. It simultaneously released information to The New York Times and other outlets, which wrote stories at the same time.
Traditionally, the division between journalism and activism has been motivated in part by a fear of being perceived as biased. Unspoken in that concern is who will perceive that bias. For at least the past three decades, voices on the right have been accusing the mainstream media of liberal bias and using those allegations to discredit its reporting.
In fact, most journalists do tilt left. Numerous studies have found that journalists are more likely to call themselves liberal than conservative, donate to Democratic candidates, and identify as Democrats rather than Republicans, though over half of journalists in a 2013 study identified as Independents. Does that mean that they are not able to be objective in their reporting?
Not necessarily, according to a report last summer from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. In fact, the report found that a culture of accountability exists on the left and center and a culture of unchecked bias exists on the far right.
In analyzing news stories shared on Facebook and Twitter over the past three years, the Berkman Klein Center found that media were divided into two distinct ecosystems, according to center co-director Yochai Benkler. One group clustered politically from slightly right of center to moderately left of center. The same readers liked and retweeted stories from all of these publications, and the publications themselves often linked to each other and commented on each other’s stories.
“What was surprising was the extent to which, all the way from The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The Hill to Daily Kos and Mother Jones, they were all linked to each other,” says Benkler. “They are all operating in a media ecosystem where media outlets check each other and call each other’s errors out,” which Benkler calls a “reality-check dynamic.”
The other ecosystem spans politically from moderate to far right—from Fox News to Infowars, with Breitbart in between. “That network is much more insular from the rest of journalism, and there is no actual equivalent on the left to that,” says Benkler, a co-author of “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics” which will be published by Oxford University Press in September.
Traditionally, the division between journalism and activism has been motivated in part by a fear of being perceived as biased. Unspoken in that concern is who will perceive that bias
He and his colleagues found that ecosystem, unchecked by the rest of the media landscape, operates in a “propaganda feedback loop.” “As long as the story is consistent with a partisan identity, it is replicated and communicated,” Benkler says. “Its truth or falsehood is not an issue.” That creates a double-standard, he says, where unverified stories on the left quickly wilt and disappear, while those on the right are amplified and repeated.
According to this analysis, media outlets on the far right can be considered activist by promoting viewpoints divorced from fact. Those on the center-left, meanwhile, can engage in false equivalencies as a way to avoid being labeled “activist” by the right.
Benkler’s advice to those journalists: Forget about trying to persuade those in the right-wing ecosystem by presenting both sides of issues when one side is demonstrably false. “Professional journalism needs to shift away from the way in which it performs objectivity. The critical move needs to be from objectivity as neutrality to objectivity as truth-seeking. That’s how you avoid false equivalencies. In a propaganda-rich system, to be neutral is to be complicit.”
Perhaps no publication represents the rejection of the on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand approach better than Teen Vogue, which over the past two-and-a-half years has become a more consciously activist publication, embracing causes including Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the March for Our Lives.
“We show our point of view by the editorial choices we make, by the subjects we cover,” says executive editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay. “It’s not just Teen Vogue. I think there are a lot of platforms that cater to a younger audience, and many of them have shifted to a more social-justice focused tone.”
Teen Vogue’s recent political coverage has included stories on protests in dozens of cities against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from immigrant parents at the border. Another article profiled teens in Flint, Michigan, who have grown up without clean water in their homes since the lead crisis was discovered in 2014. Above all, the magazine has covered young gun-control activists, including a story focused on participants in a die-in at congressional offices, a profile of a teen running for her local school board after being threatened with suspension for taking part in gun-control protests, and ongoing coverage of the latest efforts of the teen activists from Parkland. Mukhopadhyay, 40, observes a change in the way millennials and Generation Z (“zillennials”) conceive of their role as journalists. “When I started 10 years ago, I never would have dreamed of allowing a reporter to go to a protest, but it’s just different now,” she says. “I feel like we are facing a movement right now like in the 1960s when black journalists were asked to cover the civil rights movement. I have a young, outspoken staff, and that’s what makes our work so impactful.”
In covering social movements, Mukhopadhyay urges her reporters to refrain from participating in protests while they are covering them, but she doesn’t have any hard-and-fast rules about it. “I am going to expect a story, and it’s very hard to get a story if you are there protesting,” she says. “If they want to protest on their own time, I will not decide whether they should or should not do that.”
In contrast, NPR’s current guidelines on marches, for example, emphasize that there “is real journalistic value in being an observer at public events such as a march or rally, even without a reporting assignment.” But it goes on to acknowledge that “waving a picket sign or joining along in a cheer would be inappropriate.”
Teen Vogue wellness features editor Vera Papisova, who helped cover the March for Our Lives protest, sees the magazine’s job as above all giving a voice to young people who are passionate about issues. “Telling the story responsibly means doing my research and making space for the people I am writing about to speak for themselves, while also providing an informed context for their voices and experiences,” she says.
Since last year, Teen Vogue has taken that attitude outside of the newsroom, too, with a Teen Vogue Summit focusing on politics and activism. This year’s conference, held in June in New York, featured Parkland activist Emma González and other teens advocating for gun control as well as transgender Virginia lawmaker Danica Roem, rapper Common, and climate activist and former vice president Al Gore. Despite the roster of progressive speakers, Mukhopadhyay insists the goal is not to promote any party or political viewpoint, but just to get teens to be active politically.
The line between information and advocacy can get more complicated, however, when publications take a stance on specific issues.
In 2015, BuzzFeed published new ethics guidelines stating, “We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.” For editor Ben Smith, that’s an uncontroversial statement: “It’s hard to find a news organization where they say there are two sides to racial segregation. I don’t think the question of whether LGBT citizens have equal rights is a debatable point.”
There is a line, though, between expressing your point of view and being partisan, says Smith. The publication enforces a policy prohibiting staffers from taking part in political rallies or posting partisan political views on social media. “This isn’t an exact science,” Smith says, “but if my clever tweet makes it harder for my colleague to cover a business because it seems like I am sneering at them, I shouldn’t do it.” That stance is as much a tactical decision as it is a moral judgment for Smith, who says, “I don’t think it’s immoral to march in a protest; I think it could impact the way you work.”
Exaclty where that line is can be difficult to discern.
In 2016, BuzzFeed ran into controversy when it called out the hosts of an HGTV home improvement show for their membership in an anti-gay church. Many conservatives felt BuzzFeed crossed a line, with Christians arguing that people who oppose same-sex marriage and LGBT rights are persecuted by the media. A Lutheran pastor published a piece in The Federalist under the headline, “BuzzFeed Wants To Destroy Chip And Joanna Gaines For Being Christian And Wildly Popular.”
A prohibition against expressing political opinions doesn’t always sit well with journalists who feel their rights and identity are under threat. In the wake of Trump’s inauguration last January, then-“Marketplace” reporter Lewis Wallace took to his personal blog with a post called “Objectivity is dead, and I am fine with it.” “The media has finally picked up trans stories, but the nature of the debate is over whether or not we should be allowed to live and participate in society, use public facilities and expect not to be harassed, fired, or even killed,” he wrote. “Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity.”
In response, “Marketplace”’s parent company, American Public Media (APM), fired Wallace, saying his post conflicted with its policy that requires that reporters “keep their political views private” to avoid “creating the perception of political bias.” In a statement at the time expanding on the company’s reasoning, “Marketplace”’s senior vice president and general manager Deborah Clark said, “When I talk about not being part of the ‘view from nowhere,’ that doesn’t mean we do advocacy or biased journalism. We do independent, objective reporting that brings forward a balanced point of view on the news we cover.”
Wallace says it was actually his own superiors at APM who had encouraged him to be more personal and “voicey” in his posts on social media, and others have pointed out they didn’t seem to have a problem with host Kai Ryssdal posting tweets openly critical of Trump on his personal Twitter feed. “I loved my job,” says Wallace, who now works as state news editor at Southern politics and culture magazine Scalawag. “I think ‘Marketplace’ missed an opportunity to be leaders in a nuanced conversation. I am always coming into a situation where people don’t perceive me as ‘neutral,’ in much the same way there is not a ‘neutral’ interaction for a person of color to cover a white supremacist rally.”
Scalawag doesn’t prohibit journalists from expressing personal views about issues or covering issues that personally affect them, Wallace says. In any case, he doesn’t see that as activism in the same way that organizing a community around an issue would be: “There is such a thing as conflict of interest, and I am fairly vigilant about that. We fact-check and make sure that the story considers as many points of view as possible. But we certainly don’t say, ‘You have a connection to this issue, so you can’t cover it.’”
In a recent story about transgender people helping one another access healthcare, Wallace profiles activists in Tennessee and Kentucky who run nonprofit hotlines connecting trans people with trans-friendly doctors and medical clinics. The story presents a positive view of the activists and doesn’t hold back on criticizing the “hostile legislative and cultural environment” that has led to discrimination against transgender people seeking medical care. Nor does it include the point of view of a doctor who might decline to serve a transgender person on religious grounds.
As for participating in protests of anti-trans “bathroom bills,” Wallace says, “I wouldn’t say a journalist could never cover the anti-trans bathroom bill and also protest the anti-trans bathroom bill, but for me, I want to focus on getting the story right—and trying to simultaneously participate can be a distraction.”
Wallace is currently writing a book about the history of objectivity in journalism for the University of Chicago Press, tracing its roots back to the early 20th century with the creation of journalism schools and ethical codes. At the same time, some Americans were facing new anxieties about the influx of immigrants into cities and the rights of women to vote. “There was a lot more visibility to a whole lot of diverse populations,” says Wallace, who sees a connection between these two phenomena, not only codifying what it means to be objective but also what kind of person is able to be objective; namely, those who reflected a white, male worldview. “No sooner had objectivity come fully into being as a framework than it was used to keep out journalists whose interests were different than the owners of the paper.”
“As a marginalized writer of color, I can’t afford to be called an activist.” —Freelance journalist Jenni Monet
Wallace’s firing is not an isolated incident. Last March, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fired an openly transgender reporter at the university-owned NPR affiliate WUTC. The reporter had been covering an anti-trans bathroom bill in Tennessee. The firing happened after lawmakers threatened to cut funding from the station, complaining that she had not identified herself as a reporter. The corporate offices of NPR defended the reporter, who had been wearing a press pass and carrying bulky recording equipment, chastising the university for caving to political pressure. The university subsequently agreed to pay the reporter $50,000 to settle a lawsuit she had filed related to her firing.
Also last spring, Toronto Star columnist Desmond Cole, who covered issues of police harassment of African-Americans, left the paper after being reprimanded for staging a protest at a police board hearing.
For several years, Cole had opposed “carding,” in which police randomly stop black people on the street to demand their IDs and interrogate them without probable cause. In 2015, Cole had written an article for Toronto Life claiming he’d been carded more than 50 times on the streets of the city. The Star, which hired Cole for his opinions on racial issues, wasn’t always comfortable with his advocacy in print. According to Cole, in 2016, the paper’s publisher John Honderich suggested he was writing about racial issues too often and that he diversify his subject matter. Honderich denies that, saying only that he suggested Cole not write so much about carding.
In April 2017, at a police board meeting, Cole lifted his hand in a black power salute and refused to leave the podium until the police agreed to destroy the information they’d gathered through carding. In response, Cole says the paper privately admonished him, saying he couldn’t be both an activist and a columnist.
As the Star’s public editor Kathy English explained in an article, the paper didn’t have any problem with an opinion columnist taking public stands on issues. “It was only when Cole became the story … that he took his activism to a new level that became of concern.” She went on to say that the paper had spent years reporting the carding story, in fact, spending “large sums of money” on public records requests that showed black people were three times as likely to be stopped by Toronto police as white people—but that Cole’s protest at the board hearing called into question the paper’s ability to cover the issue fairly.
Cole, who declined to be interviewed for this article, decided to leave the paper rather than limit his activism, writing on his blog that “[i]f I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism in the service of Black liberation.” Cole has taken his fight against carding national with campaigns against the carding of indigenous groups in Alberta, while continuing to promote his views as host of a talk radio show and even flirting with running for mayor of Toronto.
The incident sparked intense debate within Toronto’s journalist community, with some reporters supporting the paper’s decision and others decrying a double-standard, in which the Star has continued to publish outspoken activists, such as women’s rights campaigner Michele Landsberg and anti-corporate globalization activist Naomi Klein.
Landsberg herself criticized the paper’s handling of the issue, saying that for 25 years as a columnist the newspaper had supported her activism on feminism and poverty issues, including printing a petition to prevent the closure of a child care center and filming a commercial of her presenting the signed petitions to the Canadian premier. “Is race less vital than poverty or sex discrimination?” she wrote in the Toronto alternative weekly NOW Magazine. “People of color who are (or were) loyal to the Star will not ignore the fact that one of their own has effectively been shown the door for his activism on their behalf.”
The lines between accuracy & activism, & advocacy & adversary, may shift depending on which side of the political divide, or which side of the police line, you are standing
The question of where to draw the line between journalism and activism isn’t only an issue on the left. Months ago, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune appointed one of its opinion columnists, Lee Williams, as topics editor of the newspaper, a position responsible for assigning breaking news stories as well as editing columnists. In addition to his role as a columnist at the paper, Williams is a proponent of gun rights, running a blog for the paper called “The Gun Writer” and a podcast called “Think, Aim, Fire.” On his blog he’s sympathetically covered gun rights rallies and criticized companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods, which ended sales of assault-style weapons and raised the age for gun buyers after the Parkland shootings. In a podcast episode two weeks after the school shooting, Williams and a cohost derided gun control measures and advocated for arming teachers to make schools safer.
Inside the Sarasota Herald-Tribune newsroom, reactions were mixed. One columnist quit soon after Williams’ appointment, but executive editor Matthew Sauer defended the appointment to Poynter, which first wrote about Williams in April, saying, “We encourage people to be passionate about certain topics and to pursue it … Do I worry about it coloring his opinion of a certain topic? No. He is a professional.” Indeed, the paper’s coverage of guns doesn’t showcase any obvious bias. Recent breaking stories have included coverage of the Santa Fe, Texas school shooting in May, continuing calls from Parkland students for more gun control, and efforts from Democrats and Republicans in the Florida legislature to pass new legislation on school safety.
In 1989, Linda Greenhouse, then a reporter for The New York Times, was criticized for taking part in a pro-abortion rights march while she was covering the Supreme Court for the paper. In her 2017 book “Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between,” Greenhouse calls herself an “accidental activist,” making a distinction between attending an event as an activist and as an engaged citizen. “The abortion march was an action in which half a million people took part,” Greenhouse says. “Would I have marched under a banner that said, ‘New York Times Reporters for Choice’? No, I would not. I simply went as a person.”
While the case has since become a classic study in conflict of interest, Greenhouse says she actually went with the full knowledge of her colleagues at the time. Her participation quickly was made into an issue, with the Times eventually publishing a story saying that Greenhouse had violated its conflict-of-interest policy. The controversy flared up again in 2006 after Greenhouse made a speech at the Radcliffe Institute criticizing then-President George W. Bush’s policies on reproductive rights. At that event, critics again raised her participation in the march, now more than 25 years later, as something that prevented her from being objective. “It was a retrospective sanctimony that descended on mainstream journalism, much to my surprise,” Greenhouse says, adding that it’s ironic that up until that time, the quality of her work hadn’t been questioned. “Whatever happened to judging reporters by the quality and fairness of their work, rather than what’s in their hearts and minds?” she asks. “If we are not professional enough to keep our opinions out of the news product, maybe we shouldn’t be making a news product.”
More recently, journalists fretted about newsroom edicts forbidding them from taking part in the Women’s March on Washington, which took place the day after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Those strictures didn’t sit well with many female journalists, who discussed on private Facebook groups their desire to take part in the event, says Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, a former reporter for the Associated Press who now teaches journalism at the University of Southern California.
“We have to admit that women have never experienced full equality in America or any society,” says Mohajer, who wrote an article for Columbia Journalism Review titled, “Why journalists should be able to join the Women’s March.” The way of the world in journalism is very male and very white, she says, and that limits the perspective of people who may have never had to protest for their rights.
While Mohajer says she followed the rules on not protesting while at the AP, she pointed out in her CJR piece the contradictions inherent for female journalists and journalists of color in the profession. “We are told to speak truth to power, to reveal inequality, to empower the disadvantaged and the poor,” she wrote. “But diverse employees are also told to stay silent when they feel their own rights and those of other marginalized communities are threatened.”
She went on to argue that silencing may be one reason that journalism has not gotten more diverse despite decades of efforts. “There is a barrier to entry in journalism, particularly for the younger generation, which is not interested in hiding identity the way we were told to,” she says. “It is not honest to pretend we are not what we are.”
Mohajer attended the Women’s March, carrying a sign urging women around the world to unite. As an Iranian-American, she also attended protests at Los Angeles International Airport in response to the Trump administration’s travel ban on citizens from predominantly Muslim countries. “I don’t speak to media when I go,” she explains. “I don’t carry political signs or signs for any particular group. But I don’t see a reason to stop advocating for equality.”
And just because a journalist strongly identifies with a marginalized group, that doesn’t mean she is necessarily drawn to protesting for their rights. Freelance journalist Jenni Monet, who is Laguna Pueblo, started covering the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at Standing Rock around the time that it first attracted wide media coverage. She kept herself at a remove from the activists who were staying at the camp, sleeping in motels or in her car.
For Monet’s first piece for Yes! Magazine, “Climate Justice Meets Racism,” she interviewed white, conservative North Dakotans about their discomfort with “outsiders” coming in to stir up unrest. She also examined how the pipeline’s course was changed from its original path close to Bismarck through the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and detailed bigoted posts on Facebook by local officials. “If you are going to use the word racism, you better be prepared on every corner to tell why this is racism,” Monet says. “As a marginalized writer of color, I can’t afford to be called an activist.”
Writers from marginalized groups must walk a fine line, in part due to the media’s own desire for sensationalistic stories about conflict and injustice, she says, rather than more nuanced takes on Indian Country. Mainstream media loves headlines that fire up readers by foregrounding injustice, Monet says, “so indigenous writers are forced to work within those confines,” which often means getting typecast as an advocacy journalist. Monet has found less interest in more complex stories about politics both inside and outside the tribe. In later stories for Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting and Yes!, for example, Monet considered how the tribes were caught in a tug of war between state and federal authorities for control of the reservation, subtly criticized outside protesters coming in who exoticized the Native American camp, and covered disagreements among Native leaders about whether continuing to protest the pipeline was best for the reservation.
Her position as a Native writer gives her insight into debates within the community that an outside writer might miss, says Monet, allowing her to understand distinctions within the community rather than viewing it as monolithic in its views. “Yet, often the condescending assumption is that stories that come from Native writers like myself have an inability to be objective,” she says.
When activists at Standing Rock were arrested en masse, Monet was arrested with them. As a journalist who had been regularly covering press conferences, she expected to be released by the time she got to jail; instead, she says she was detained for 30 hours, strip searched, and denied the right to make a phone call. Despite repeatedly telling jail officials she was a member of the press, she was subjected to racial slurs by the jail captain, who called the women “savages.” She wrote about that experience, too, providing firsthand evidence of the kind of racism to which Native protesters were subjected.
Experiencing close-up what activists go through can lead to richer, more sympathetic coverage, even for journalists who are not members of marginalized groups. But it can also lead to questions about maintaining proper distance to objectively cover events.
“I don’t think it’s immoral to march in a protest; I think it could impact the way you work.” —BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith
That’s what happened in the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson in 2014, according to Stephen Barnard, a professor of sociology at St. Lawrence University. Barnard analyzed the use of Twitter by activists and journalists during the events. In the chaos of the protests, which sometimes turned violent, lines between journalists and activists broke down, says Barnard, with hybrid citizen journalists—or “journo-activists,” as he calls them—often breaking news on social media and professional journalists playing catch-up.
Even more interesting was how the coverage by journalists embedded with protesters—including the Post’s Wesley Lowery, the LA Times’s Matt Pearce, and HuffPo’s Ryan J. Reilly—diverged from those at more of a remove. As police pushed to control the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets, tweets by embedded journalists became more emotional and sympathetic in tone.
“As journalists started to be on the ground with activists and share these visceral experiences, they were tweeting in many ways not that differently than the way activists were tweeting,” says Barnard. In the heat of the protests, one journalist wrote, “Police shooting tear gas directly at journalists now. Flashing lights so cameras can’t record. #Ferguson #MikeBrown.” The next day, a journalist shared a statement of solidarity with activists and implicit criticism of police, saying, “It wasn’t all bad tonight. I made friends with at least a handful of folks who didn’t threaten me with batons and tear gas. #Ferguson.”
That doesn’t mean these reporters were not reporting the facts, but they were exposed to different facts than the journalists on the other side of the police line who were getting their news from the officials at press conferences. They could see “the facts of militarization of our police force and the way those forces were deployed against largely peaceful protesters,” Barnard says. “The fact that journalists were teargassed, detained, and limited in doing their jobs was a bit of a trigger for them, that this is crossing a line and we won’t stand for it.”
Barnard’s “Citizens at the Gates: Twitter, Networked Publics, and the Transformation of American Journalism,” published by Palgrave Macmillan this summer, extends the analysis to journalists’ coverage of Donald Trump after the election. On the whole, Barnard found journalists’ responses to be restrained compared to those from the general public. Journalists were not merely reporting the facts of Trump’s statements, but adding commentary, context, and fact-checking, sometimes with a forceful edge—for example, saying, “This is ridiculously out of context,” or “This shows how Trump simply does not understand governing.” “They were using [Twitter] to correct the record,” says Barnard, even if in an entertaining and engaging way.
To those on the other side of the political divide, those same tweets could be seen as partisan attacks. “It blurs the line between what is advocacy or activism, and what is traditional adversarial journalism,” says Barnard.
The lines between accuracy and activism, and advocacy and adversary, may shift depending on which side of the political divide, or which side of the police line, you are standing. But journalism “does require some skill in recognizing other people’s points of view and being able to hear someone’s story,” says Teen Vogue’s Mukhopadhyay. That openness extends to hearing the story of the police when writing about a protest, or hearing the story of an accused rapist when reporting on sexual assault, something most activists would never trouble themselves with.
“What I want to know more than anything is if you are curious,” says Mukhopadhyay. “We all know none of these stories are black and white. Despite what your opinion is, if you are ruled by your opinion, that is not real reporting.”