Activism & Journalism: A Tricky Line to Draw

By Becky Hoag

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Journalists commonly have beat preferences that coincide with what there are interested in. My beat preference is science and environmentalism. I am very passionate about the fight against climate change, and with the recent Earth Week and March for Science activity, I have been getting very involved in the activism. However, journalists like me need to reel themselves back and look at where they want to go as journalists.

It might seem counterintuitive to argue that journalists need to not be activists because activism is a main reason why many journalists become who they are. There are those who are titled “activist journalists,” but there can be a lot of baggage associated with that title. Readers who recognize the journalist as an activist, tend to assume that that journalist allows their personal bias to get in their writing.

This is not terribly inaccurate because there really is no such thing as a completely unbiased journalist. But there is a line that needs to be drawn in a journalist’s career. If they allow themselves to be very openly activist, then they might lose some readers’ trust. Readers might write off the journalists as too biased to write about the whole truth, even if that isn’t the case.

So journalists need to consider what their objective is. If they want to get their opinions out there, then maybe this isn’t so bad. But if they want to educate as much of the public as they can about a certain topic, then they might want to refrain from gaining an activist reputation.

Having an activist reputation is not always bad. Activists help shape the world. But their reputation is generally one of biases, stubbornness and one-sided arguments. While there are many instances of this reputation being true, I do not find that most of my activist friends fall under this category. But this kind of reputation can be detrimental to a journalist who is supposed to be uncovering truth.

This was something I have had to learn recently because I was getting deeper into the activist community and culture. I went to every climate change rally I could go to, as well as the March for Science, even being the speaker for one of the rallies. I was working to make a climate change activism apparel company and had begun joining activist groups on campus such as Climate Justice League and OSPIRG.

I always wondered why many of my fellow journalists stayed apart from these protests. It wasn’t until I went to a Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) conference in Portland recently that I was told about the activist journalist reputation. Even though I had known a little of this reputation and its association with biases, this is when it clicked.

As someone who is planning on being a scientist and a journalist, I want people to trust that the findings and facts that I provide are well-rounded. I had a nagging voice in the back of my mind that I was subjecting myself to an activist reputation, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to dedicate myself to that form of journalism.

This does not mean that I will no longer be actively trying to combat climate change because that would be the farthest from the truth. I have just switched my method of doing so. Rather than being armed with a protest sign, I will be armed with a pen and paper. I won’t write stories about what I as an individual think, but interview others about what they think.

I still go to climate change events and am a member of Climate Justice League. This summer, I will be working with Science in Memory, a climate change reporting project with the school of journalism. But I use the information I gather as inspiration for article topics.

Journalists can be activist in what topics they choose to write about. If I am passionate about climate change, then I am going to write for an environmental publication (such as Envision) and bring the conversation of climate change into the mainstream publications too.

Though every journalist draws their line in a slightly different spot, this is where I choose to draw mine.. There is no right or wrong, it just depends on what kind of reputation you want in your journalism career.

This article is an example of my writing style as a journalist. I am raising a question, but providing many different answers. Mainly, I want my audience to think: How am I doing?