Why jour­nal­ists should avoid dou­bling as ac­tivists on is­sues

The China Post - - COM­MEN­TARY -

The similarities be­tween jour­nal­ism and ac­tivism are ob­vi­ous, but the dif­fer­ences are sub­tle.

Prac­ti­tion­ers in both fields some­times oc­cupy the gray area be­tween, leav­ing ob­servers puz­zled as to the truth­ful­ness and ob­jec­tiv­ity of their mes­sage.

When Bri­tish par­lia­men­tar­ian Ed­mund Burke coined the term “the fourth es­tate” in 1787 to dis­tin­guish the press from the clergy, the no­bil­ity and the com­mon peo­ple, he was in ef­fect set­ting news­pa­pers above the fray of po­lit­i­cal de­bate.

Jour­nal­ists then and now of­fered opin­ions on pol­i­tics, of course, but their cen­tral work was — and is — in pre­sent­ing the raw facts by which oth­ers might form their own opin­ions.

Jour­nal­ism has evolved with time and tech­nol­ogy, its reach and its abil­ity to sway pub­lic opin­ion mul­ti­ply­ing along with lit­er­acy and global ac­cess.

The temp­ta­tion to abuse such power is un­changed. Who would refuse the chance to con­vey their opin­ion to the largest pos­si­ble au­di­ence in the hope of hav­ing a sig­nif­i­cant impact on cur­rent af­fairs?

Jour­nal­ists and ac­tivists are sim­i­lar, some­times iden­ti­cal, in that they can serve as a bal­ance weight to the power of gov­ern­ment when it be­comes ar­bi­trary or un­just.

They gather and an­a­lyze in­for­ma­tion and for­mu­late opin­ions on im­por­tant mat­ters. Given the breadth of their au­di­ence, jour­nal­ists must share these opin­ions ju­di­ciously, in the form of com­men­taries that are care­fully la­beled as such.

Yearn­ing for an au­di­ence of any sig­nif­i­cant size, ac­tivists heed no such re­stric­tion. But the key dif­fer­ence be­tween these two groups has to do with reach

and impact.

Truth and Impact

Jour­nal­ists pri­mar­ily want the “truth” as they per­ceive it to emerge, and what hap­pens next is of less concern to them; Ac­tivists want the “truth” to be known and, cru­cially, bring about change.

A jour­nal­ist might gather in­for­ma­tion about the abor­tion is­sue and then say to the pub­lic, “Here’s what I found out and here’s what I think.” That re­porter could be pro- abor­tion or anti- abor­tion, but the cup is never quite full, given that the pros and cons of abor­tion con­tinue to de­velop and no one can claim to know every­thing there is to know.

An ac­tivist will in­sist on black or white, ei­ther pro- or anti-abor­tion. There is no room for fur­ther de­bate or thought­ful re­con­sid­er­a­tion of the facts.

Much as some ac­tivists con­fuse what they are do­ing as a form of jour­nal­ism — alert­ing the pub­lic to ac­cu­mu­lated facts — there are jour­nal­ists who cross the pro­fes­sional bar­rier into the realm of sub­jec­tiv­ity, in a bid to ef­fect changes they deem nec­es­sary.

Be­tween the similarities and sub­tle dif­fer­ences of these dis­parate call­ings lies the mud­dling gray area. Some jour­nal­ists even think that an ac­tivist stance makes them bet­ter re­porters.

That might be true in cases where the black and the white are clearly dis­tin­guished, as with the is­sue of forced pros­ti­tu­tion, for ex­am­ple. Oth­er­wise they are doomed to spend their days fend­ing off ac­cu­sa­tions of bias from those whose opin­ions they have de­val­ued.

Like any­one else, all re­porters have po­lit­i­cal opin­ions, and their news­pa­pers and broad­casts of­ten be­come the pro­pa­ganda tools of po­lit­i­cal ri­vals. Jour­nal­ism is a ca­reer strewn with moral and eth­i­cal haz­ards. What mat­ters is what jour­nal­ists do within these cir­cum­stances.

Thai pol­i­tics hov­ers among sev­eral lay­ers of truth, and that alone should be enough to sup­press any jour­nal­ist’s urge to be­come overtly po­lit­i­cally ac­tive.

In­sult­ing the opin­ions of oth­ers takes this un­eth­i­cal prac­tice to a whole new level. While it’s im­pos­si­ble to be strictly neu­tral in to­day’s po­lar­ized world, and al­though most jour­nal­ists have an ac­tivist streak, pro­fes­sional dig­nity de­mands that they be fully cog­nizant of the sub­tle dif­fer­ences set­ting them apart from ac­tivists. This is an ed­i­to­rial pub­lished by The Na­tion on Oct. 3.

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