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Journalism and activism: This 'Reliable Sources' segment sparked a debate

Is journalism a form of activism?When I brought up this subject on CNN the other day, I was not expecting such...

Posted: Mar 28, 2018 11:52 AM
Updated: Mar 28, 2018 11:53 AM

Is journalism a form of activism?

When I brought up this subject on CNN the other day, I was not expecting such an outpouring of reaction. It turns out I touched a nerve about the role of responsible journalism in a world full of opinion and noise.

Even NRA national spokeswoman Dana Loesch is now weighing in.

On Sunday's "Reliable Sources," I interviewed Rebecca Schneid, one of the editors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student newspaper. Schneid and several other student journalists were in Washington covering the March For Our Lives.

"I see a lot of Parkland students becoming activists, but you all were there as journalists," I said. "Do you see a difference right now between journalism and activism in what you're doing?"

"I think that for me, the purpose of journalism is to raise the voices of people that maybe don't have a voice," Schneid said. "And so I think that in its own right journalism is a form of activism."

She added that she does see "distinctions" between the two, "but I think that the partnership of the two is the only reason that we are able to make a change."

The @ReliableSources Twitter account tweeted out the "journalism is a form of activism" quote, spurring thousands of reactions, replies and retweets. Many of the comments were critical -- along the lines of "THIS is the problem with journalism" and "just report the facts."

Several conservative web sites picked up on Schneid's comment and wrote disapproving stories.

But it wasn't just partisans who bristled at the segment. Associated Press reporter Meg Kinnard replied to the tweet and said: "Journalism is not activism. This should not have gone unchallenged."

But Schneid had many defenders too, including people who pointed out that there's a long history of advocacy journalism in the United States and other countries. Schneid responded to the controversy too -- but let's save that for the end.

National Journal politics editor Josh Kraushaar had the single most-shared response to the CNN segment, with people both praising and criticizing his point of view.

"Journalism isn't activism; it's presenting the facts, honestly and objectively. It's this mentality that's killing trust in our profession," he wrote.

Kraushaar said he didn't want to single out Schneid, but "this mentality, at least from my experience, is more common among younger journalists."

Los Angeles Times national correspondent Matt Pearce took the other side.

"Journalism *is* activism in its most basic form," he wrote. "The entire basis for its ethical practice is the idea that a democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function. Choosing what you want people to know is a form of activism, even if it's not the march-and-protest kind."

Pearce's point was that newsrooms are constantly picking and choosing what's worthy of coverage and what isn't. Deciding what belongs on the front page of the paper is the classic example of this.

Pearce added: "Does anybody think that even the fairest and most diligent of investigative reporters wrote their horrifying stories hoping that nothing would change?"

Stories about abuse of power and misuse of taxpayer money come to mind. Academics sometimes call this the "agenda setting" function of journalism.

Political columnist Ana Marie Cox responded to Pearce: "This was the exact reaction I had -- great reporting should make you want to take action, to *be active*! What makes it reporting is that you let go (for the most part) of what that action is."

Columnists and editorial board writers go a step or two further, advocating for specific solutions to problems.

Big chunks of the American media marketplace, from the liberal magazine The Nation to the conservative Fox News show "Tucker Carlson Tonight," could be described as advocacy journalism.

But Schneid's answer exposed some of the deep distrust of journalists that exists in the United States, particularly among President Trump's supporters.

The Daily Caller web site even printed the definitions of "journalism" and "activism" next to each other to argue that the two acts are very different.

Some of the people who reacted to Sunday's segment see journalists -- ideally -- as completely passive players, while others see journalists as active participants, standing up for marginalized people and fighting against misinformation.

"When people in power are sowing doubt about basic facts, journalism looks like activism," the Twitter account for the NewsGuild union commented.

Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post responded with this definition of journalism: "Even beyond big, long investigations, journalists perform acts of activism every day. Any good journalist is an activist for truth, in favor of transparency, on the behalf of accountability. It is our literal job is to *pressure* powerful people and institutions via our questions."

But individuals like Loesch, the host of a show on the NRA's TV platform, don't see it that way. Loesch played Schneid's comments on Tuesday and said "Okay, that's wrong. Journalism is not activism. I've been both and unlike those in the media today, I never pretended that one was the other, nor did I attempt to hide my own opinions."

She added: "Journalism is self-sacrificing. You're sacrificing your own narrative so that your readers can come to a conclusion based on the facts you give them."

And Schneid reacted to all of the social media chatter with her own tweet on Tuesday.

She called back to Kraushaar's statement that "Journalism isn't activism; it's presenting the facts, honestly and objectively."

"Journalists can USE the facts to describe an issue that plagues society," like gun violence, Schneid said. "It's the journalists who present these facts and elevate the voices of the oppressed that allow for actual change to occur."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 516486

Reported Deaths: 10299
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison35042558
DeSoto33463432
Hinds32797643
Jackson24926392
Rankin22593405
Lee16523245
Madison14978283
Jones14191248
Forrest13852260
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Lowndes11387193
Lamar10713140
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Hancock7848132
Washington7561169
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Pontotoc7060110
Warren6892178
Panola6807135
Neshoba6753210
Marshall6735142
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Alcorn5950108
Pike5947157
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George511080
Prentiss510185
Tippah497983
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Scott479499
Tate4786118
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Wayne443772
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Stone366466
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Jasper341566
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Winston318892
Clay313978
Clarke301995
Calhoun288950
Holmes273389
Smith270852
Yalobusha245847
Tallahatchie232653
Greene225449
Walthall222166
Lawrence220842
Perry214656
Amite210357
Webster206748
Noxubee188843
Montgomery182757
Carroll175841
Jefferson Davis174643
Tunica163939
Benton153439
Kemper145541
Choctaw137827
Claiborne134839
Humphreys132339
Franklin126630
Quitman107928
Wilkinson106139
Jefferson97334
Sharkey65321
Issaquena1957
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 848779

Reported Deaths: 16185
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1164582005
Mobile744601384
Madison53563738
Shelby38454371
Baldwin38215589
Tuscaloosa36172644
Montgomery34573782
Lee25690264
Calhoun22636520
Morgan22548411
Etowah20075520
Marshall18865318
Houston17795426
St. Clair16968359
Limestone16206220
Cullman16170306
Elmore15952295
Lauderdale15093307
Talladega14267302
DeKalb13095271
Walker12180380
Blount10791193
Autauga10562157
Jackson10221196
Coffee9440192
Colbert9376210
Dale9049192
Tallapoosa7287202
Russell711465
Chilton7098170
Covington6973197
Escambia6969144
Franklin6369108
Chambers5810142
Marion5446132
Dallas5306210
Pike5135109
Clarke486086
Lawrence4852130
Winston4804110
Geneva4656136
Bibb436495
Barbour370880
Butler3445101
Marengo342993
Monroe338566
Randolph338067
Pickens335090
Fayette332285
Henry321266
Cherokee320564
Hale319589
Crenshaw261878
Washington256852
Cleburne255460
Lamar253555
Clay253169
Macon246367
Conecuh193562
Coosa186048
Wilcox178538
Lowndes178468
Bullock152845
Perry141940
Sumter139841
Greene130745
Choctaw94628
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