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The term ‘advocacy journalism’ describes the use of journalism techniques to promote a specific political or social cause. Other terms used for practice outside the mainstream include ‘alternative,’ ‘gonzo,’ or ‘new journalism’. The term is potentially meaningful only in opposition to a category of journalism that does not engage in advocacy, so-called objective journalism.
This advocacy/objectivity dichotomy springs from political theory that asserts a special role for journalists in complex democratic societies. Journalists’ claims to credibility are based in an assertion of neutrality. They argue for public trust by basing their report of facts, analysis, and opinion on rigorous information gathering. Professional self-monitoring produces what journalists consider an unbiased account of reality, rather than a selective account reflecting a guiding political agenda.
At one level, the term ‘advocacy’ might be useful in distinguishing, for example, journalistic efforts clearly serving a partisan agenda (such as a political party publication) from those officially serving nonpartisan ends (such as a commercial newspaper). But the distinction is not really between forms of journalism as much as between persuasion and journalism. Although so-called objective journalism assumes that, as a rule, disinterested observers tend to produce more reliable reports, a publication advocating a cause might have more accurate information and compelling analysis than a nonpartisan one. The intentions of those writing and editing the publication are the key distinguishing factor.
All reporters use a framework of analysis to understand the world and report on it. But reporting that contains open references to underlying political assumptions and conclusions seems to engage in advocacy, while the more conventional approach appears neutral. Both are independent in the sense of not being directed by a party or movement, but neither approach is in fact neutral. One explicitly endorses a political perspective critical of the powerful, while the other implicitly reinforces the political perspective of the elite.
- Applegate, E. (2009). Advocacy journalists: A biographical dictionary of writers and editors Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
- Collings, A. (2001). Words of fire: Independent journalists who challenge dictators, druglords, and other enemies of a free press. New York: New York University Press.
- Kessler, L. (1984). The dissident press: Alternative journalism in American history. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Mindich, D. T. Z. (1998). Just the facts: How “objectivity” came to define American journalism. New York: New York University Press.