When environmental journalist Hillary Rosner interviewed for a Knight Journalism Fellowship a few years ago, a member of the selection committee said, “I think of you as an advocate rather than a journalist. Can you defend yourself against that?” Rosner says she was shocked and offended. “I think clean water and clean air are basic human rights. I don’t think if I hold those views that makes me an advocate,” she says.
I was shocked too—at the idea that journalists feel they must defend themselves against the accusation of being an advocate. I jumped into science writing after a decade working for environmental organizations in which advocacy and education are both seen as necessary to bring about needed change. I thought science journalism did the same thing. Advocacy journalism—a genre of journalism that transparently promotes a viewpoint for some social or political purpose—seemed like a great idea to me.
Imagine my surprise, then, at a regional meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists, where concerns about advocacy came up in every workshop I attended. The keynote speaker emphasized SPJ’s code of ethics, which asks journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest real and perceived” and “label advocacy and commentary.”
The tension between journalism and advocacy is especially acute in environmental journalism. The politicization of the environment—and the increasing association between environmentalism and political liberalism—may contribute to environmental journalists being on the defensive. Most environmental journalists would agree that human activity is creating a mess of the earth, and that that warrants change. The desire to address environmental challenges is fundamental to environmental journalism, says Mary Hoff, editor-in-chief at Ensia, a sustainability-focused magazine funded by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
In that sense, environmental journalists share motivation with investigative journalists on other beats. By definition, investigative journalists uncover stories of corruption and/or wrongdoing, working from the belief that the public has a right to know and should take action based on that knowledge. As the Pulitzer Prize–winning publication ProPublica observes, journalism at its best serves the public and seeks to stimulate positive change.
If journalists and advocates share the desire to bring about change, what’s the problem? Why draw a line between the two? And if there’s a line, where is it?
“I don’t think it’s a problem to want your journalism to have an impact,” says Michael Kodas, who teaches environmental journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “It’s supposed to be the ‘fourth estate.’ People are supposed to take action based on your information. I think it becomes advocacy when you become a little too fine-tuned with the action you want them to take.”
Keeping Distance from Advocates
When I decided to become an environmental writer, my original business plan was two-pronged: writing and volunteering for environmental nonprofits where I could uncover story ideas, and writing for publications with a broader readership. I realized after a few short months into freelancing what an uncomfortable relationship journalism has with advocacy and advocates. I’ve learned that most magazines and other media organizations expect writers to follow journalistic standards of reporting.
It turns out, my plan posed a potential conflict-of-interest nightmare, making it likely that I would get too cozy with sources or with the causes they’re advocating for.
Rosner, an environmental journalist for over ten years, is keenly aware of the potential hazards of getting involved in advocacy when working as a journalist. “I vote, but I don’t belong to any environmental groups. I don’t sign petitions. I do that old-school journalist thing where you remove yourself from [advocacy].”
Other writers seek out ways to straddle the worlds of activism and journalism. Bill McKibben is an activist and writer who started out as a straight journalist. He mostly writes books, but occasionally still writes journalistic pieces for magazines, like this one in National Geographic.
But McKibben also recognizes the power of a paycheck to influence a writer’s objectivity, which is why he believes there’s a meaningful difference between advocating for a cause and taking money from an organization associated with that cause. He’s a volunteer at 350.org, the climate-focused nonprofit he cofounded. “I’ve never taken a penny from them—or any other environmental group—precisely because I always want to be free to say what I want to,” he says. “That seems to me the great privilege of being a writer,” he said in an email.
Barbara Ehrenreich is another successful author and journalist who tackles issues of poverty and health, and whom many consider an activist on behalf of the causes she writes about. As she says on her website, “I have never seen a conflict between journalism and activism: As a journalist, I search for the truth. But as a moral person, I am also obliged to do something about it.”
Kodas, who also helps direct the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, says he’s a stickler, siding with strict journalistic standards. “When you think in terms of sources that won’t talk to you or the possibility to taint your reporting because of your advocacy work, I do see that as a risk,” he says. “If a media company feels as though their journalism is not going to have the impact that they want it to have because they are working with journalists who are a little too far along on the advocacy spectrum, I can completely see why they would be restrictive of that,” he says. Kodas doesn’t refrain entirely from engaging with causes and organizations he believes in, but he chooses ones he wouldn’t cover as a journalist. For new writers, that strategy can be difficult, he says. They may want to keep options open for working with a variety of media outlets.
David Doody, senior editor at Ensia, says that when writers are considering writing about an organization they’ve been involved with, they need to ask themselves whether they’d find it difficult to criticize the organization or its staff or volunteers publicly. “I think some writers would be more capable of it than others,” says Doody. “However, he says, it’s better to err on the side of caution and assume people will be influenced. “[At Ensia, we] just start from that perspective and try to take it case by case.”
A larger concern is reader perception, Doody says. “Even if we are confident that a certain writer could take a critical look at an organization they’ve had ties to, readers’ perception is as important as ours,” he says. “They don’t have any of the behind-the-scenes discussion. All they have is what’s published.”
Disclosing a writer’s ties to sources or to the subject at hand is one way publications deal with these issues. I recently wrote a piece for Ensia based on a volunteer experience with an NGO. The editor decided that although people tend to “be preferential with things that they have spent time and money on,” my one-time involvement wasn’t enough to kill the story; instead, they included a note about my volunteer work. By adding such a disclaimer, Hoff says, the magazine let readers judge my credibility and motivations.
When the Publication Is the Advocate
Many freelancers grappling with journalistic standards feel conflicted about writing for magazines with ties to NGOs or foundations. Magazines such as Sierra and Audubon have long been on the scene. Some writers fear that the agenda of such organizations will keep them from being able to write freely. Science writer Emma Marris says she’s had mixed experiences with these kinds of publications. When the funding organization’s agenda obviously influenced the editorial decisions, she chose not to work with them.
Journalists sometimes also grapple with publishers with ties that could be considered a conflict of interest, such as InsideClimateNews, which was started by a former public-relations executive. In a recent column in Undark, science journalist Paul Raeburn argues that all journalism is advocacy journalism—advocating on behalf of the public. It’s not so important who funds or starts the media outlet, he writes: “Objectivity” means journalists act with integrity, fairness, and accuracy, and responsibly report what they saw or researched.
Advocacy groups that aim to present the strongest arguments possible for their positions are also hiring journalists with deep expertise. Dan Gilmore writes in Slate that groups such as Human Rights Watch and Climate Nexus are adding value to the media ecosystem by “going deeper than anyone else on topics that they care about that are vital for the public to understand, but which traditional journalists have either ignored or treated shallowly.” These organizations hope their in-depth reports will be picked up by traditional media, but they also get the message out through their own websites, through social media, and through partnerships with aggregation sites such as Upworthy. Such assignments offer these “almost-journalists,” as Gilmore calls them, the time and resources to conduct excellent reporting and therefore yield high-quality information.
It’s getting complicated out there. Self-employed writers, especially, must often set their own boundaries for their work and civic engagement. “As a freelancer you make your own rules. There’s no magical formula for how to make sure you are behaving ethically,” says Marris.
Where Do “I” Fit In?
Voicing opinions—especially controversial ones—can be scary in its own right. And then there’s the concern of maintaining journalistic objectivity and credibility if a writer advocates a position.
Rosner has written a few op-eds, but she has never written a feature story that asks readers to take a specific action. She thinks her job, as a journalist, is to objectively report on infrequently covered environmental stories, bringing those stories to public attention. But she doesn’t present her opinion.
Rosner, who almost exclusively writes for magazines, relies on her writerly voice rather than her opinion. “Magazines expect your story to have some kind of argument. They expect you to have a voice, and they expect you to be making some sort of point. It’s not about taking a side in the story, but making an argument.”
“I think there are many kinds of journalists—and advocates, too, I suppose,” McKibben says. “I knew as I was writing The End of Nature that I had taken sides—that is, I didn’t want the planet to disastrously overheat. That basic conviction has stayed with me, and it hasn’t prevented me from contributing useful journalism, I think. It may have helped, in fact, produce pieces like Rolling Stone’s ‘Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.’”
Marris shares McKibben’s viewpoint. “I wouldn’t want to keep quiet about the things I am most passionate about.” Pretending she doesn’t have an opinion would be a disservice to readers, she says.
Transparency can help deal with journalists’ concerns about voicing an opinion, says Kodas. “I don’t think Bill McKibben is trying to pull the wool over our eyes that he’s an advocate. He’s got very strong opinions and he’s telling you the story of ‘this is what my opinion is.’”
Marris, too, is open about her bias and the impact she wants her work to have. Her website makes clear her agenda as a writer: “My goal is to find and tell stories that help us understand the past; take meaningful action in the present; and move towards a greener, wilder, happier and more equal future.”
Marris spent four years as a news and feature writer for Nature before she wrote her book The Rambunctious Garden, which opines on the future of conservation and makes specific suggestions about how to prioritize conservation efforts. Her well-researched but controversial views made waves among conservationists—some applauded it and others despised it.
Still, when her book appeared she worried that she’d crossed a line. Would editors stop assigning her the kinds of news stories that she’s always written? It didn’t happen that way, she says. “I still get calls to write 500-word news stories.” Marris keeps her opinion out of news stories—in which neutrality is the standard—and she makes a point of pitching news stories on scientific findings that contradict her opinions.
Objectivity Is the Process—Not the Person
The debate around whether or not journalists can truly be objective is as old as journalism itself. Many argue that being human means being biased. Choosing to do journalism on an environmental topic exposes one’s bias. Story choice exposes bias. How a writer presents the story exposes bias.
A person cannot be objective, suggests Kodas, but what can be objective is the process. Objectivity of process, Kodas explains, means abiding by a reporting or editing process that is as fair and consistent as you can make it. Find and cite the least biased sources of evidence; for climate change, for example, that might mean the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate-change data. Call the supposed wrongdoers in an environmental disaster, tell them what they are accused of, and allow them to respond. Fact-check during writing and editing.
“Unbiased, objective reporting is the sine qua non,” says McKibben. But, he adds, “Once you’ve figured out what’s going on, then say it.”
Advocates select facts and data to support an argument. In contrast, “A journalist is someone who is willing to disappoint himself with the truth,” as journalist and author Sebastian Junger told the Columbia Journalism Review in 2013.
Advocacy Journalism—An Oxymoron?
As the Internet matures, advocacy journalism is gathering steam. More people are turning to websites and blogs that validate their worldview to get their news. Anyone with a computer can create a digital media presence, throw up some content, and adopt the title “journalist.” Doing original, objective reporting is rarer.
As journalists who conduct original reporting—and do their best to be unbiased in that process—become fewer, our world becomes more politicized and embattled. I tend to agree with ProPublica on this: “Sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources of facts on which those opinions are based are shrinking. The former phenomenon is almost certainly, on balance, a societal good; the latter is surely a problem.”
So is advocacy journalism an oxymoron? Yes, I think it is, most of the time. One way to clarify the line between the two is that advocacy recommends a particular cause, policy, action, or solution to a problem. Journalism presents stories about problems, solutions, corruption, and injustice to inform the public, trusting that the public will right the wrongs but make up their own minds about exactly what action to take. It’s an important—and clear—distinction: Journalism doesn’t advocate for specific change. Advocacy does. While journalism and advocacy might share a general goal, it’s the means of getting there that makes all the difference.
Christina Selby is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance writer and amateur photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She writes about conservation science, biodiversity, pollinators, and sustainable development. Her work has appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Green Money Journal, Mother Earth Living, and elsewhere. You can find her online at The Unfolding Earth, a blog featuring photography and environmental writing on global biodiversity hotspots; her website; or say hi on Twitter @christinaselby.