Can a journalist also be an activist?
When Halifax Media Co-op journalist Miles Howe was arrested for the third time by the New Brunswick RCMP, many questioned if he was indeed a journalist. But others say activist journalism has a role in the media landscape and activist journalists who are upfront about their biases can still report ethically.
By Neal Ozano
Can a journalist also be an activist? When Halifax Media Co-op journalist Miles Howe was arrested Nov. 26 for the third time by New Brunswick RCMP, many questioned if he was indeed a journalist. Howe was reporting about SWN Resources’ exploration for natural gas near the small community of Rexton and the Elsipogtog First Nation, which claims the land.
During the arrest, police seized Howe’s cellphone and camera and to-date have not returned it, claiming they form part of an ongoing investigation.
Howe lived among protesters at their camp for more than a month, where he did much more than take notes—he took sides. At a speech uploaded to YouTube on July 8, 2013, Howe addressed the protesters, saying “I want all to be united in purpose, and that is, no shale gas in New Brunswick, and no shale gas in the Maritimes.”
Related content on J-Source:
- Reporter arrested at New Brunswick protest
- Ward’s Words: Do ethics, not definitions
- Ward’s Words: Putting transparency in its place
It’s comments like these that led St. Thomas University Professor Philip Lee to argue that Howe wasn’t a journalist on a segment of CBC New Brunswick’s Information Morning on Dec. 1, titled “Journalist or Blogger?”
“(He) can’t be involved to the degree he is and be considered an independent investigative journalist,” Lee said on CBC.
The Media Co-op called for an apology and retraction after the CBC segment aired, as well as equal airtime for Howe, who was not invited to the panel. Lee refused to apologize. When asked to explain why, Lee told J-Source, “I don’t think you can, in a clear-headed, open-minded way, pursue true stories when you are invested in a cause, when the objective of your reporting is a particular political outcome.”
But Howe said the work he does is just journalism from a different perspective. “This is my beat. That’s all that’s really happening here. I don’t think people would get this (information) otherwise,” Howe said.
“It’s a perspective, and an aspect of the narrative that hasn’t necessarily been given attention in this area, maybe ever,” Howe said. “So, fuck it, right? That’s important work and I’m quite willing to do it by attempting to put it into some perspective.”
The 36-year-old Halifax reporter likely doesn’t fit most mainstream media’s concept of a “journalist.” At the end of the CBC panel, host Terry Seguin said CBC’s director of journalistic standards and practices, David Studer, said CBC couldn’t call Howe one, because “journalists are supposed to be fair, balanced and neutral.”
But Howe’s brand of activist journalism is gaining credibility among other mainstream journalists.
During the same CBC discussion, CBC veteran and retired Halifax Chronicle Herald editor Dan Leger called Howe “a hot-headed fanatic.” But in an email to J-Source, Leger said Howe’s brand of “participatory journalism,” as he calls it, “has a place within the spectrum [of mainstream media] (of Canada’s media).” Leger said pieces by Howe on SNW’s alleged breaking of New Brunswick’s Oil and Natural Gas Act and former premier Shawn Graham’s family connections to fossil fuel rights in New Brunswick “are perfectly suitable pieces of reporting that would be taken seriously by any publication.”[node:ad]
The Canadian Association of Journalists also came out in support of Howe saying in a press release that “it’s inexcusable police would detain any journalist for doing their jobs, especially the same journalist for the third time in months.”
And far from being alone in his field, Howe’s ilk is part of a rising tide of “journalists” who either join up with (or actively deride) the movements or people they write about.
One of those is Halifax’s The CoastWeekly news editor Tim Bousquet, who said “balance is bullshit.” The Coast garnered its first-ever Michener nomination in 2012 for Bousquet’s writing about the estate of Mary Thibeault, who died leaving Halifax mayor Peter Kelly as executor of her $650,000 will. For eight years, Thibeault’s benefactors went unpaid while Kelly skimmed $160,000 from the estate. He didn’t run again for the mayor’s seat in 2012, and was removed as executor of the will, likely because of Bousquet’s reporting.
There was rarely any doubt in Bousquet’s reporting whether he thought Kelly was guilty. As a writer, he wore his biases on his sleeve, for all to see. “It’s fine to have bias, I mean, we all have bias, so it seems to me better to be upfront about that, or to be obvious about it; this is how I’m viewing that story,” Bousquet told J-Source.
Bousquet has also been critical of Halifax’s Trade Centre Limited, which runs the city’s main sports centre and convention centre virtually without oversight, and the construction of a gigantic second downtown convention centre, which he asserts is guaranteed to lose money and is being built on false financial premises.
“I don’t try to hide that in some fake bullshit objective reporting around it. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m critical of it. I’m looking at this institution, and I’m going to look at it through the lens of someone who’s quite critical of it,’” he said.
Could this type of journalism be on the rise?
Ben Sichel, one of the founders of Halifax Media Co-op, said if the numbers mean anything, more people are finding its brand of activist journalism worth supporting. Sichel says just a year ago, “our entire budget for the national media co-op was comparable to one CBC reporter’s starting salary.” According to Media Co-op documents, the organization brought in just over $102,000 between April 2012, and March 2013, through grants, donations, and subscriptions. And in the two weeks before Dec. 6, during the peak of Howe’s coverage (and his arrest), the Co-op added 40 new paid subscribers who were willing to pay, despite the fact that the content is free.
Howe has got a new camera and phone through crowdsourcing to replace the ones seized by the RCMP. He just hopes his words have some effect on the people reading them.
“I write in the hopes that … the people involved in it can gather information from it, and potentially, at best, see themselves reflected in it as well, so they can feel that this is from the perspective of a resistance—this is what it looks like,” he said.“Is that journalism? Yeah, I think it is.”
CORRECTION: Two quotations from Philip Lee that originally appeared in this story but were later shown to have been taken out of context were removed on Dec. 17, 2013.
Neal Ozano is the former editor of OpenFile Halifax and has reported for the Halifax Daily News, CBC Radio, Halifax Magazine and numerous other publications. He has worked previously as Howe’s editor on one occasion.
Related content on J-Source:
- Media ethics as activism
- Halifax’s News 95.7 faces upheaval after Rogers Media layoffs
- CBC Newfoundland and Labrador apologizes for controversial column on Innu