Fighting for the soul of journalism amid imposters
As journalists, we ask tough questions of our sources. But it turns out we may need to ask such questions of fellow journalists as well. Stephen Ward writes about an alarming trend he is seeing south of the border: partisan groups passing off their work as journalism. Partisan journalism simply can’t provide the value that public journalism ideally does. The U.S. cases should serve as a warning to Canadians. Foreword by J-Source Ideas editor and Media magazine editor David McKie.
Media magazine reveals some interesting organizations calling themselves journalists
We’ve always been taught as journalists to ask tough questions about our sources. What motivates them? Where are they getting their information? How accurate is it? Why are they talking to you specifically? Are they lying?
Well, it turns out that the same kind of due diligence and truth-seeking is required when encountering certain individuals calling themselves journalists. And I’m not talking about bloggers who the Supreme Court of Canada has determined are as legitimate as any print or broadcast journalist working in the mainstream media. Instead, I’m referring to a new group of individuals who have caught the attention of Media magazine’s ethics columnist, Stephen J.A. Ward.
“My objection to these new wire services is not political,” he writes. “I’d be as troubled if left-wing groups participated in the same charade. Nor do I think it is wrong for these political groups to promote their causes. But I object when these groups claim to be non-partisan journalists.”
To give you an idea of why Stephen is so concerned about these groups, please keep reading.
In the meantime, please enjoy Stephen’s piece.
Fighting for the soul of journalism amid imposters
My state of Wisconsin is a testing ground for a partisan assault on journalism. If this activist model works here, these groups are prepared to establish similar services across the country as they prepare for a presidential election next year.
The question, “Who is a journalist?” has special importance in an era where citizens can commit random acts of journalism with the flick of a computer key.
However, after several years of debate, people tire of the question. Is this just semantics – how you define the word ‘journalism’?
I think not.
Recent developments in the United States show that if journalists are unable to define who they are and how they differ from other media users, the public sphere will be filled by political partisans, bogus news organizations, and imposters claiming to be journalists.
Across the United States, right-wing nonprofit foundations such as the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity are setting up Internet “wire services” and web sites that claim to do journalism – to cover politics while pushing for free market and libertarian policies.
The foundations train activists to use media and they hire journalists to cover state legislatures. They apply for membership in state press galleries. At the beginning of 2011, the Franklin Center established www.wisconsinreporter.com; earlier it established the the Illinois Statehouse News.
These partisan groups take advantage of the reduction in mainstream reporters who cover state legislatures. They know that newsrooms with fewer staff will be tempted to use their stories. Therefore, partisan sites are increasingly successful in getting their stories into newspapers, or in having their editorials discussed on radio talk shows.
The mainstream outlets that pick up their reports often don’t explain that partisan groups constructed the stories. Also, the partisans deny that they are partisan, although they are reluctant to name their donors. They claim to be doing ethical and objective journalism. Some claim to follow the code of the Society of Professional Journalists.
My state of Wisconsin is a testing ground for this partisan assault on journalism. If this activist model works here, these groups are prepared to establish similar services across the country as they prepare for a presidential election next year.
This is not a question of semantics. It is a battle for the soul of journalism.
Who are these guys anyway?
Take, for example, www.wisconsinreporter.com.The site’s “about” page lists the names of three reporters with journalism experience. But dig deeper.
The web site is sponsored by the Franklin Center founded in 2009 as a national organization “to train and support investigative journalism and journalism endeavors.” Franklin is supported by the libertarian Sam Adams Alliance and Foundation.
Consider another example, the right-wing activist web site, Media Trackers. It describes itself as a “conservative non-profit, non-partisan investigative watchdog dedicated to promoting accountability in the media and government across Wisconsin.” A ‘donate’ button on the site indicates that it is supported by the Virginia-based, right-wing American Majority. Donations will help develop conservative activities and support potential conservative political candidates.
In Wisconsin, supporting free markets and keeping government accountable means supporting Tea Party protests, attacking the Democrats, and supporting conservative Governor Scott Walker’s controversial opposition to collective bargain rights for unions, among other things.
The trouble with challenging these partisan ventures is that they justify what they do in standard journalistic terms. They claim they are acting as watchdog on elected officials. They are digging up facts that keep elected officials accountable.
Spokespersons for these sites say ‘look at our reporters’. Many come from mainstream news media. Examine our stories. They report facts. Jason Stverak, founder of the Franklin Center and former Republican activist, rejects the idea his reporters are ideologically driven. It’s not “conservative” to challenge officials, he says.
Others are not so sure. Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of Madison’s Capital Times recently wrote an article about www.wisconsinreporter.com with the headline: “News service just a wolf in disguise.” He accused the web site of conservative biased stories that pretend to be straight news reports.
Replying to the partisans
How should journalists reply to partisans who claim to be doing journalism?
The only way journalists can distinguish themselves from impostures is to appeal to their ethical aims, standards, and practices.
First we need to change the question. The question is not: “Is this journalism?” since almost any public commentary can count as an act of journalism. A better question is: Is this good or bad journalism in the public interest? We adopt a normative approach. We ask whether journalism-like associations are following the standards of non-partisan public journalism.
What standards are those? They include:
- Public journalists are true public servants, not activists: Publicjournalism organizations are committed to serving the public at large with impartial information and perspectives. Their allegiance is not to a specific group, ideology, or cause, which they advance at every turn. Public journalists are not actors (or activists) in the public sphere insisting that officials follow their ideological principles. Public journalists stand among contending groups; they do not stand with (or work for) a political group. Public journalists inform the public on what the groups say about issues.
- Public journalists are truly impartial and objective: Being impartial or “non-partisan” means much more than reporting facts. Being non-partisan has to do with how journalists select the facts, and what stories they do or ignore. Non-partisan journalists follow all the facts to wherever they lead, without the straightjacket of ideology.
- Public journalists are truly independent:Truly independent reporters do not self-censure. They feel free to do stories that go against the political leanings of employers or funders.
- Public journalists are truly transparent: Nonprofit, non-partisan journalism organizations are willing to let the public know who pays for their news and who donates to their organizations. They allow the public to assess the integrity of the journalism.
To be a true public journalist you can’t pick and choose among these standards. You need to satisfy, as much as possible, all of these values. You are not a public journalist because you satisfy one standard, e.g. you report facts. You can’t say that you are a watchdog when you watchdog only one entity -- the party that opposes your ideology.
Journalism organizations satisfy this family of standards to varying degrees. However, these right-wing wire services and statehouse web sites fail these standards so miserably that we cannot take seriously their claims to do independent, objective and non-partisan.
Blurring the line
Blurring the line between journalism and political activism means that the public may be unable to distinguish between partisan groups that use journalistic techniques for their own ends, and journalists who use journalistic techniques to impartially inform the public.
My objection to these new wire services is not political. I’d be as troubled if left-wing groups participated in the same charade. Nor do I think it is wrong for these political groups to promote their causes. But I object when these groups claim to be non-partisan journalists.
For centuries, activists have expressed themselves through journalism. But that is different from trying to hoodwink the public about one’s identity and aims. The truth is that the agenda of these foundations is not to do objective journalism, but to train writers as foot soldiers for their political causes, and to gain an ideological victory over political opponents.
Their claim to be a public watchdog or to do objective reporting is a shameful appropriation of journalistic values.
Let’s hope this trend does not take root in Canada.
Stephen J. A. Ward is the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, as well as a columnist for J-Source.
This piece will be published in Media magazine in the coming weeks.