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Notes from PWAC Toronto Seminars

 
 

 

 
 
Advocacy Journalism 

Notes taken by Celène Adams and edited by Angileen Gallop.

Advocacy 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 Indies.

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 and police.

He 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:

"Let 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.

Joseph 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.

With 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.

Joseph 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.

"If the piece ends up being 51 per cent of my original idea then that is a victory,' he said.

Joseph also said he believes that the style, or form, of a piece can be just as political as its content.

"Why 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 is told.

Judy 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."

Instead 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.

"The 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.

"That is an involvement," she said.

Rebick 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 undervalued today.

Rebick 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.).

"The 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).

"This 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?"

Rebick said journalists are looking in the wrong places for stories. The MAI story was largely ignored, she said, because there were no elites involved.
"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 raw.

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 journalist.

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 going.

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.

He added that you absolutely have to have alternative ways to make an income.
"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.



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