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Advocacy Journalism

Advocacy Journalism

July 28th, 2008  |  Published in Reporting commentary  |  2 Comments

The Second Draft asked me to look into a story by Ray Stoss at Pajamas Media about something called Accountability Journalism at the AP. It’s being introduced by their new Washington Bureau chief, Ron Fournier, over the objections of his predecessor Sandy Johnson.

Stoss bases his discussion of  accountability journalism on an article Fournier wrote last year. He concludes that Fournier  isn’t talking about journalistic accountability, but rather means holding others in positions of power accountable to what the journalist ‘knows to be true’. Here is Stoss’ summation.

Accountability journalism is about holding politicians accountable to the personal conclusions of reporters. It is about reporters getting the opportunity to call it as they see it, liberated from the need for equal treatment of all sides, weasel words, and even the pressure to accept politicians’ statements at face value.

Curious, I went to Fournier’s original article and found it couched as a set of guidelines for reporters on how to do accountability journalism. His opening paragraph gives a  sense of where he is coming from.

Katrina made a believer out of me. I had always known that The Associated Press played a role in holding public officials accountable, but it took a killer hurricane and an incompetent, arrogant government response to make me realize this is no mere role. It’s an obligation, a liberating one at that.

He goes on as he starts. This advice on how to handle sources is probably the low point:

 Play to their vanity. Tell them how smart you think they are and you just want to “pick their brain.” Whether you quote them or not (in some cases: especially if you don’t quote them), sources will feed you insight that you can claim as your own. (emphasis in original)

Fournier seems full of self importance and  evidently blind to the implications of the different nature (many to many) of the networked media of the 21st century. He reminds me very much of my visit to the Newseum in Washington DC where you could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that the press alone is the sole guarantor of freedom of speech. To put it as charitably as I can, I think Fournier is saying that the press needs to be more aggressive in its role as watchdog and not pussyfoot around pretending to be neutral and balanced when the reporter feels there is important truth to be told. He gives an  example of what he means and explains that it is somewhere between straight news and outright opinion – calling it “news analysis”.

March 2, 2005:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush vowed, “We are fully prepared.” Mike Brown barked orders. Weather experts warned of a killer storm. The behind-the-scenes drama, captured on videotape as Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, confirmed Americans’ suspicions of government leaders: They can run a good meeting, but little else.

These are not “opinion pieces” or editorials. They are the conclusions of an impartial observer who understands the context that drives news events. They are built on facts and solid reporting. And they are written under the banner of “AP News Analysis.” AP writers have been doing this for years, and we’re getting better at it every day.

The next thing I did was look up ‘accountability journalism’ in Wikipedia. There was no article, but the disambiguation page led me to an article on Advocacy Journalism which seems to me to more accurately describe what Fournier is talking about.

Advocacy journalism is a genre of journalism that intentionally and transparently adopts a non-objective viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose. It is distinguished from propaganda, in that it is intended to be factual, and is usually produced by private media outlets (as opposed to governments). It is also distinct from instances of media bias and failures of objectivity in media outlets which are attempting to be or which present themselves as objective or neutral.

Just for the record I don’t think Accountability Journalism as used by Fournier is an intellectually honest term. However, further digging unearthed that the term  is currently being used  within the profession for getting away from the neutered kind of neutrality that simply reflects a series of claims without making any distinction among them. In my previous post I detailed how TV has long gotten around that difficulty dishonestly by keeping the words arguably neutral while making their real point by emotionally manipulating the viewer through the video portion of the medium.  In any case Fournier is not alone is seeking a new approach that isn’t entirely one sided like muckraking or unbalanced activism and also not shackled by the pretense of neutrality. NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen has an extensive discussion of this trend and uses the term ‘accountability journalism’ at his blog Press Think. Here he defines what he means in terms of the work of the frankly liberal blog Talking Points Memo.

Josh Marshall’s TPM Media operation is a new media newsroom that does political reporting in the same space as the big providers. Marshall believes in accountability journalism, sticking with stories, digging into public records for information, getting to the bottom of things, verifying what you think you know, correcting the record when you get it wrong.

TPM marries these traditional virtues to open expressions of outrage, incredulity marking certain political figures as ridiculous or beyond the pale, and the informed display of political conviction. These make it obvious to any reader of Talking Points Memo that Marshall is a liberal Democrat skeptical of the Bush agenda, though not a dogmatic one. His is the transparency route to trust and success in political journalism.

I notice there is quite a bit more journalistic accountability in Rosen’s definition of the term and also that he cites unfavorable criticism of his post from the other side of politics.  ( In my experience Jay Rosen gets the importance of blogs and pays attention to them – he correctly criticized me for the way I handled a post of his  on Newmediatheory here.  Just practicing accountability journalism folks)

Here is Rosen’s citation of  Protean Wisdom being critical of his post:

Jay Rosen uses an offline essay by Walter Pincus to argue that the media should be more transparent about its politics.  That Rosen holds up the hypocritical Josh Marshall as a model of integrity, or holds up Keith Olbermann as “another” example (there may be some intentional ambiguity by Rosen on this point) – while ignoring counter-examples to be found on the Fox News Channel or the Excellence in Broadcasting network — is annoying.  Nevertheless, urging journalists to admit that they are participants in the public square is a healthy notion, so RTWT.

Linking to that response takes intellectual accountability seriously too. Rosen’s article raises many issues in the debate about the limits of neutrality and the need for greater transparency  beyond the scope of this post. It really is worth reading the whole thing to get a good sense of the internal debate. However, I’m interested in what may be happening here from a media theory point of view. What I see is the media adapting, indeed being forced to change by the changing media environment. Less than half the American population think the media are politically unbiased. Pretending to be ‘fair and balanced isn’t working any more. Not for Fox. Not for NPR. The country’s flagship newspaper the New Your Times is hemorrhaging money and its stock price tanking. Newspapers generally are facing severely shrinking revenues. So to compete the the press is adopting a more aggressively and openly opinionated style. Even also ran MSNBC is evidently  being provocative and gaining viewers (finally). I’d note that they are acting more like blogs, which are intentionally transparent about their opinions. So partly accountability journalism  is about survival, but I believe it is also about trying to regain control of the narrative.

I think all the mass media will  survive in some form even if newspapers are feeling the pinch hardest right now,  but I don’t think they will regain the monopoly over the narrative that they held when they exclusively controlled the means of production. That is, the presses, and the broadcasting facilities. TV and the role it played with Vietnam, and Wategate, more than any other medium,  made journalists think they were exclusively in control. They could derail wars and humble Presidents – just in case you hadn’t noticed. With their pictures they could control what we believed was actuality and with their words tell us what to think. Cronkite signed off with “…and that’ s the way it is.” and we believed him! Edward R Murrow, his predecessor, signed off with the far more humble: “Good night and good luck”. Ironically the kings and princes of the Renaissance were keenly aware of the threat to their power created by the printing press and immediately moved to control Getenberg’s invention with censorship. After a long struggle, freedom of the press became one of our most cherished principles, but many of today’s press – like that new chap at AP – seem unaware of the implications of programs like WordPress and Movable Type. The mass media still have a strong effect on public opinion, but they have already lost trust and respect.  There seems to be an underlying assumption in much of the discussion within the profession – which the copious links in Rosen’s piece open up – that it is possible to regain that paradise of  power and control that I think Fournier finds so liberating.


  1. Dick Stanley says:

    August 6th, 2008at 5:32 am(#)

    For what it’s worth, I would argue that this “accountability” journalism is lipstick on an old pig.

    Newspapers I’m familiar with are losing money, primarily, because of Monster dot com and Craigslist. Not because they are biased. They have always been biased. True, the blogosphere is pointing up their bias in new, often quite startling, ways but, so far, they’re resisting the lessons.

    Except, perhaps, to create stuff like “accountability journalism,” to try to excuse what they’ve been doing for a long time.

    Years ago, when I was still a reporter, I was introduced, by a new editor, to two new concepts for work. One was to “write with authority,” which is easy to do, but not very meaningful when you’ve only made a few phone calls about something. The other was to eliminate “too much” attribution. It was supposed to help the flow, or something, for the reader. Plus make the reporter seem more authoritative.

    It seems to me that something similar to these two concepts are about all that Fournier is pushing, while dressing it all up with vague, high-falutin’ explanations. It will certainly increase the bias already being practiced through choice of sources, quotes and background material.

    But it won’t do anything to bring back classified advertising.

  2. admin says:

    August 7th, 2008at 1:26 am(#)

    I certainly felt I had found something like your ‘old pig’ when I read the definition of ‘advocacy journalism’. I agree that it is about survival and that no matter what they do much of their business, like classified advertising, is irretrievably lost for purely technological reasons. I appreciate hearing of your experience as a reporter and learning that some of Fournier’s proposals simply reflect a basic conflict in journalism between needing to hold readers and also maintain standards.

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