taken by Celène Adams and edited by Angileen Gallop.
Journalism: is it an oxymoron or a redundant phrase? Regardless of the
view they took, the term 'advocacy journalism' served as the red flag
that each of our panellists used as a jumping off point for the
evening. While they didn't always agree, each of the panellists
revealed how they have wrestled with the issue building lives for
themselves as journalists who don't hide their politics, how to
reconcile their politics and their journalism, or, in many cases, live
with the contradictions involved.
Panellists for the evening were:
Judy Rebick is one of Canada's best known feminists and
political commentators. She is currently the publisher of www.rabble.ca, an
important source of online journalism that never pretends to be
objective. Judy is also a regular columnist for both CBC Online and Elm
Street magazine and the author of two books Imagine Democracy and
Politically Speaking. From 1990 to 1993 she was president of the
National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
Clifton Joseph is a writer, dub
poet, performer and TV host. He has appeared in various reggae and folk
festivals, was an interviewer on TVOntario's literary programme,
Imprint, has created documentaries for CBC's The National and has
written articles for This Magazine and NOW. He hosted the CBC Radio
Ideas show, Black on Black, which examined the issues facing black
writers in Canada. He grew up on the island of Antigua in the West
Saul Chernos has been a journalist
and activist for nearly two decades. He worked as a staff reporter and
photographer at several community newspapers in southern Ontario before
moving on to daily papers in Orillia and Peterborough. Saul has been
active in the peace, environment and human rights movements. He has
volunteered with ACT for Disarmament, hosted a current affairs show at
community radio station CIUT in Toronto, and participated in several
media organizations, including the Society of Environmental
Journalists. Saul is particularly enthusiastic about his current role
as editor with The ACTivist (www.the-activist.org), a magazine
dedicated to activism.
Saul Chernos opened the discussion
by taking apart, quite literally, the term 'advocacy journalism.' To do
this he consulted The Concise Oxford Dictionary. While he found the
dictionary defined 'advocacy' straightforwardly as 'verbal support or
argument for a cause, policy, etc.'; he took issue with the definition
of 'journalism,' the business or practice of writing and producing
newspapers.' He noted that although the dictionary excluded magazines,
radio, television and the Internet in its definition, it did include
the word 'business.' He said indeed there is a business agenda behind
mainstream journalism, hence notion that journalists must be apolitical
to serve the notions of 'objectivity and balance' often serve to keep
reporters from swaying too far from the party line adopted by their
employers. myths. To Chernos, all journalism is advocacy, so one has to
be aware of the motives behind it. He said the challenge for
journalists who operate outside of the mainstream is to get beyond
superficial reports of, for example confrontations between protestors
said that while there are no rules for advocacy journalism, and often
reports have to be taken with a grain of salt, people who practice it
are bearing witness to vital social and political events and are
contributing to a vital flow of information. He encouraged the audience
to take reports from mainstream outlets with a similar degree of
skepticism because they too, have an agenda. He concluded with the
following advice for all journalists:
your reporting be passionate. But do question motives, both within the
power elites and within your own ranks. Figure out why individuals and
groups take various positions. Follow the power as well as the money.
Report honestly. Be open to changing your mind. Think of the big
picture - the notion of public service.'
Clifton Joseph opened by saying
that he came to journalism as an activity rather than through academic
training. He, like Chernos, expressed discomfort with the term
'advocacy journalism' because, he said, journalism should be, by
nature, an advocacy-type activity.
said he sees a laziness, what he called "PR journalism' or 'open-ended
questions that don't demand anything of the subject' become more
pervasive. He noted that this afflicts not only mainstream but also
what he called the 'so-called alternative' media. He said we just can't
blame the media for this, we as an audience have become used to, and
hence accepting of, PR journalism.
regard to being a Black journalist, he said he is often expected to be
loyal to the community and has taken heat for stories that have exposed
issues within the community. He noted that there came a point when he
had to choose between being a representative for the community or
acting as a journalist.
said he is someone who 'cut his teeth' in public broadcast, and he said
he found that 'real journalism' or work that challenges viewers can be
done. He added that it takes a lot of manoevring to do journalism work
that you are really passionate about in the mainstream.
the piece ends up being 51 per cent of my original idea then that is a
victory,' he said.
also said he believes that the style, or form, of a piece can be just
as political as its content.
say something in 10 words when you can say it in a 110?" he said, much
to the amusement of his audience. He said while he certainly 'goes for
story' in his journalism, he also tries to keep the poetry in
it…and capture his audience with the form in which the story
Rebick also commented on the term "advocacy journalism,"
saying she doesn't just question it, she plain doesn't like it.
"Advocacy is taking a position and be single-minded on an issue. "As an
advocate I argue for my position," she said.
By contrast she said when she delves into an issue as a journalist she
realizes how a issues are more complex, than the single-minded
advocate's point of view. Journalism's job," said Rebick, "is to
present that complexity in an accessible way."
of "advocacy journalism", Rebick said she prefers the French term
"journaliste éngagé," which, she said, recognizes
that journalists can be both committed to pursuit of objectivist ideals
while being involved with issues.
refusal of corporate media to accept that you can be a journalist yet
be engaged in certain issues is hypocrisy," she says. As an example of
how journalists regularly contradict their own assumed objectivism, she
points to business journalists who play the stock market.
is an involvement," she said.
said she has been involved in the journalism world for 7-8 years now
and said she has a lot of respect for the craft - one she said is
outlined her objectives for www.Rabble.com,
the on-line publication which she founded and edits. "I don't consider
Rabble to be advocacy journalism," she said. "Mainstream journalism
presents the world from the elites' perspective; Rabble presents it
from the rabbles' perspective." She said our media is full of stories
that involve about one per cent of the population. (a regular roster of
experts, movie stars etc.).
most important problem for engaged journalists is to find ways to break
through with stories that make [the majority of] people feel they are
important, that give people a sense that they can be subjects and not
only objects in the world.
Rebick talked about how she was speaking at a CAJ (Canadian Association
of Journalists) conference after the defeat of the MAI (Multilateral
Agreement on Investments).
was a story about the victory of a Canadian citizens group over some of
the world's most powerful organizations, yet it was a story that was
largely ignored by our journalists. Why?"
said journalists are looking in the wrong places for stories. The MAI
story was largely ignored, she said, because there were no elites
"I think this is an area we need to challenge," she said.
Questions from the audience:
Q: Do you have to be an outsider to be an "advocacy journalist"?
C.J. You have to be willing to be an outsider because sometimes you
have to piss off the group you come from. (He talks about stories he
has done about Caribana and on violence in the Black community)
Q: Question about hate content on independent media sites like www.indymedia.org, a
web site that has set itself up as a newswire by encouraging citizens
(particularly protestors) to act a journalists and post their stories.
Saul: You have to take it with a grain of salt. It's journalism in the
J.R. Independent media is an interesting experiment but it's not
journalism. (she compares it to the 'Babble' section of Rabble, a
discussion forum where people discuss the news and post news they find
or write) . A lot of young people on Babble say they are suffering from
information overload and these forums help them crystallize their views
of the news. Indymedia obviously fills a need because it has caught on
around the world.
C.J: A lot of people confuse journalism with writing. There is
something called the craft of journalism. When I read journalism, I
don't want to read diaries.
Q: How do you balance your passion for politics and your commitment to
journalism? How does this play out in your daily work?
S.C. Talked about attending a demo in a grim reaper's costume so that
his employers at a daily newspaper would not see his face, as a
demonstrator, on TV.
J.R. I've been fired from every journalism job I've had except for Elm
Street magazine. When I was at CBC I was told that I couldn't be
engaged in political activism. I wasn't an activist at the time but I
did have a clear position on issues. Often I see careerism take over
when young people stop and pull away from their engagement in issues
because of a concern about how it will affect their careers. I think
that to be an 'engaged journalist' you have to be a fighting
C.J: Talked about how he got interested in a story about how Canada was
deporting men from prisons who had come to the country when they were
young - dropping them in their 'home' countries with no networks or
resources. He said it took him a full year and a half to get that story
off the ground and, he added that sometimes you may never get a story
J.R. Talked about the three media types 1. mainstream 2. public 3.
independent. She said she thinks engaged journalists have to practice
in all three.
C.J. and S.C. both talked about how there can be really bad stories in
independent and 'alternative' media and really good, advocacy-type
stories in mainstream, private media.
Q: How does one make a living as an 'engaged' journalist?
S.C: Finances his life as an engaged journalist by writing for computer
trade magazines he said while there is a certain amount of craziness
involved in leading this double life but he has found that he is
learning a lot from his 'money-earning' jobs that feed his journalism
work. He said he is focusing The ACTivist to be more of a trade
magazine for activists - to encourage strategic, thoughtful activism.
J.R: Makes the bulk of her income from public speaking engagements.
C.J: Is also a dub poet - in the 70s called himself a 'dub poet at
large.' He makes money from MC gigs and does publicity work.
"Anything juicy and shady but not too shady," he said.
added that you absolutely have to have alternative ways to make an
"If the media glanced me off I'd have four or five other gigs," he
said. "If I didn't have these then I'd have to take what is on the
table and sometimes it doesn't smell too good.