Investigation Two Overview

In “A Student, a Teacher and a Glimpse of War," Nicholas Kristof asks the reader, “How can you walk away from a human being who will surely die if you do so?” Why does he include this language in his editorial? Speaking to journalism students, Kristof mentioned that the goal of his column is to “make people spill their coffee when they read it, then go volunteer or donate” to help solve the problems he writes about.1Is this the role of a journalist? Should a reporter be in the business of advocacy—of attempting to influence public policy and individual behavior?

In this interview, Brooke Gladstone, host of the show On the Media, refers to Kristof as an “advocacy journalist.” According to journalism professor Robert Jensen,

The term “advocacy journalism” typically is used to describe the use of 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.”2

But just what is meant by “objective journalism”? Brent Cunningham, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, presents the challenges of answering this question:

Ask ten journalists what objectivity means and you'll get ten different answers. Some, like the Washington Post's editor, Leonard Downie, define it so strictly that they refuse to vote lest they be forced to take sides. My favorite definition was from Michael Bugeja, who teaches journalism at Iowa State: "Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were.”3

Communications professor Richard Taflinger understands the desire for “neutral” or “objective” reporting. He explains, “Such objectivity can allow people to arrive at decisions about the world and events occurring in it without the journalist's subjective views influencing the acceptance or rejection of information.”4

Kristof “flinches” when Gladstone calls him an advocacy journalist. He worries that advocates are perceived as “somebody who goes out and finds evidence to buttress their preexisting convictions.” Advocacy journalist Sean Condon counters this concern by stressing the importance of accuracy. “You still have a responsibility to be telling the truth,” he says, “and if you sacrifice that to advocate on behalf of something, you might be doing more damage than help.”5Kristof maintains a similar approach to his writing. “What I want to do is shine my light to illuminate that problem,” he explains, “but I don't want to tinker with the evidence. I just want to galvanize people by showing them what is out there.”

“Showing them what is out there,” however, requires making choices about what to include and what to leave out. This is why Taflinger refers to objectivity in journalism as “an unrealizable dream.”6 Robert Jensen agrees with him. He argues:

All reporters use a framework of analysis to understand the world and report on it. But reporting containing open references to underlying political assumptions and conclusions seems to engage in advocacy, while the more conventional approach appears neutral. . . . Accounts of the world, including journalistic ones, must begin from some assumptions about the way the world works. None is neutral.7

If no reporting can be purely objective or neutral, then at what point does an article move from news reporting to advocacy? Where along this continuum would we place Kristof’s work? How do we account for the fact that Kristof is a columnist whose articles appear on the opinion page of the paper? This role may give him more leeway to advocate on behalf of a cause than a traditional news reporter has, a distinction that Rebecca Hamilton, a reporter for the Washington Post, points out. In her role as special correspondent for Sudan, she explains, she is not an activist, even though she cares deeply about stopping the violence in Darfur. Before becoming a reporter, Hamilton spent years working in Sudan and the United States on behalf of victims of the genocide in Darfur. This experience gives her a unique perspective on the role of a reporter. She explains:

As an activist, one of the most valuable tools in my arsenal was quality reporting from those who were perceived as objective. Whoever you are pushing knows you have an agenda and sometimes can discount your claims because of that. Being able to point to objective reporting that backs up your point is very powerful.

Therefore, Hamilton tries to keep her writing as objective as possible. She refers to an article she wrote about the expulsion of aid workers in Sudan that was used by humanitarian organizations and advocacy groups because it “said things that these organizations were unable to say themselves.” By finding hard-to-get perspectives and delivering this information to a broad audience, Hamilton feels she can use her position to help the people in Darfur.

Reading Kristof’s columns and learning about his method of storytelling gives us the opportunity to get to know one model for how journalists can use their role to confront violence and injustice around the world. But this is not the only model. If you were a reporter, how would you choose to use your public voice? What would you want to write about? For what purpose?

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