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Journalist as Advocate

September 15, 2011

One thing I've been thinking about lately is the relationship between journalism and advocacy.

The word 'advocacy' has a slightly pejorative ring to it, or somehow seems antithetical in some respects to the traditional notions of journalism as centering on the task of reporting 'objectively' around a subject or event, or responding to it in an analytical / critical fashion. It's easy to confuse advocacy with public relations.

The other issue with advocacy as it relates to journalism is that it's easy to reduce the term to an expression of simply 'liking' something. For example, if a theatre critic gives a show a positive review, it makes him or her, in the narrowest sense, an advocate of the production.

But for me, advocacy is a much deeper and broader idea --  and one that I feel should have a core place in journalism.

My vocal music media project, VoiceBox (a public radio and podcast series and website dedicated to exploring the art of the human voice) is a sort of hybrid between journalism and advocacy.

On the one hand, it involves a lot of research, reporting and interviewing. Each radio show/podcast is put together using many of the same techniques and impulses that I might apply to an article for The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.

On the other hand, one of the core missions of the project is to advocate for the vocal arts. What does this mean in practice? I'll tell you what it doesn't mean: It's not that VoiceBox seeks to bash people over the head with the message 'everyone should get out and sing and support vocal music as listeners too!' Neither do I refrain from making critical comments about particular singers or styles of singing on air if it's appropriate to do so.

Yet advocacy for the vocal arts is crucial to what I'm trying to achieve with VoiceBox. It's the guiding principle that underpins the project. The advocacy element of VoiceBox is what keeps the project on track and stops it from veering into some terrain where I don't think it should go, such as PR. It's at the root of every decision I make.

My thinking on the link between journalism and advocacy is in its infancy as you can tell if you've managed to stick with this post up to this point. I would love any thoughts or suggestions with regards to how others view the relationship. Feel free to respond in the comments section!


  • Thanks for this post. I was thinking about this recently when pitching an interview piece about an actor I really admire. My editor cautioned me to refrain from "boosterism" (an even more pejorative term!) in the way I wrote the piece -- but when I thought about it, I realized I had no idea how to conduct a purely "objective" interview. Unless I were to bombard this actor with overtly critical questions, would I not be "advocating" for him just by virtue of choosing him as a subject matter?

    In the end, I think I'm going to write the piece for a publication with fewer such qualms.

    Sorry for all the scare quotes.

    By Blogger Lily Janiak, At September 15, 2011 at 11:22 PM  

  • I am all in favor of advocacy. I believe the important element is to be clear that you're an advocate (i.e., if you have a political bias, declare it proudly, don't feign objectivity). Besides, when it comes to creative matters, which are matters of discernment, if the writer does not advocate one way or another, the writing is worthless to me!

    By Anonymous Adam Leipzig, At September 18, 2011 at 8:38 PM  

  • Good questions here.

    I'm definitely not an expert, but I was hanging with my friend, a sports reporter while he covered a high school football game. He mentioned he respected the announcer of the game because he was always "objective," even though he probably went to the high school he announced for.

    It actually surprised me, because if he hadn't mentioned it, I probably wouldn't have noticed. I think this line between advocacy and objectivity is one the general public rarely notices or even cares about. In fact, much of the time the public wants to read that advocate for their favorite sports team, artist, or singer.

    But maybe (and I'm thinking out loud) advocacy also limits the journalist. I think if a journalist wants to rise above that team and that audience, they'd be looked down upon by other journalists with different advocacies. It's more professional, more sophisticated, I guess, to be objective, even if it means being less popular to the fans.

    By Anonymous Joe Bunting, At September 21, 2011 at 8:57 PM  

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