The Journalactivist’s Concerns

Media | Building/Consensus
I came up with the term journalactivist to describe what I do here. I wanted to work on journalism– pursuing truth through the collection and presentation of facts– as well as activism– doing something based on those facts. "Journalactivist" may be useful word to describe this, so I will discuss the definition and some of the ramifications.


Google returns only one reference to the term journalactivist. Ken Wiwa, a reporter with the Toronto Globe and Mail, wrote in 2001 about coming of age as a "journalactivist", during the period that his father, a writer-turned-martyr, was put on trial in Nigeria for exposing the corruption and depravity of the Nigerian oil industry and its rulers. "My time as a journalactivist enabled me to buy that experience [about the way the world works] cheaply." Wiwa ended his essay:

"So, tempting as it might be to fold one identity into the other, I have become convinced that there is a fork in the road where the two must head down separate paths. While one sees the world as black and white, manipulating the facts to service his agenda or interests, one-eyed and unapologetic for being so, the other inhabits a less-certain world. He likes to think of himself as a dispassionate observer, reporting events as he sees them, weighing both sides of the argument and leaving the reader to decide."

I would argue that an activist shouldn’t manipulate facts any more than a journalist would. Wiwa expresses the conventional wisdom that journalism and activism shouldn’t mix. I suspect that enough people are in fact mixing them, and then figure out what the expected guidelines should be.


As an activist, you need to be interested in a cause. You need to publish it freely, and you need to participate in the ensuing discussion. You should have a system for easily archiving your writings– maybe journalarchivist would be a more fitting term– and thanks to today’s self-publishing software, it’s easy to do. As Jay Rosen wrote in PressThink recently about the resuscitation of archives: "What bloggers call their archive, newspaper journalists call the morgue."

The journalist’s purpose is to pursue the truth, to uphold a discipline of verification, to provide news that is relevant to its readers, and in proportion to its importance. (this is cribbed from A Statement of Shared Purpose by, a collaberation between the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists).

There is an overlap here. Journalists and activists both want information, and to some degree, want to influence decision-making. In doing so, they want access to people who have the information and make the decisions. To gain access, journalists and activists need to assert that their organizations are politically relevant (either with some circulation of readership, or a body of membership). The difference comes in that the journalist asks questions; the activist provides suggestions. The journalactivist should balance these efforts, and engage in a full dialogue with their sources.


There are a couple of other noteworthy, similar movements in journalism:

Civic Journalism was developed in the 1990’s, and supported by a number of academic institutions. There’s the Pew Center for Civic Journalism at the University of Maryland, Civic Practices Network at Brandeis University, and the Civic Journalism Interest Group at Virginia Commonwealth University. Civic journalism was aimed at news organizations, and has been adopted by some. The CPN, by definition, explains that "It begins with the understanding that journalists have a fundamental responsibility for strengthening civic culture."

Participatory Journalism, is a newer concept. JD Lasica, in USC’s Annenberg School’s Online Journalism Review, writes an expanded definition of "the media" to now encompass "participitory media"– blogs, discussion forums. Not too long ago, these were referred to as "new media", but that term had a certain vagueness to it, covering interactive entertainment as well. This term still invites debate about whether the primary face of PJ– weblogs– are in fact journalism. This is addressed by the Jay Rosen article mentioned above, as well as Rebecca Blood’s Weblogs and Journalism in the Age of Participatory Media. She writes:

Instead of inflating the term ‘journalism’ to include everyone who writes anything about current events, I prefer the term ‘participatory media’ for the blogger’s practice of actively highlighting and framing the news that is reported by journalists, a practice potentially as important as–but different from–journalism.

What I like about the term "journalactivist" is that it hacks the word "journalist" in half, so it avoids the immediate semantic debate of whether it is a proper facet of journalism. But I still want to approach my writing as if I were a journalist. Now let’s tackle the hard issues.


A cornerstone of journalism, according to the Journalism.Org Statement of Purpose, is a dedication to objectivity. "Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover." Often a journalist will take visible steps to avoid any appearance of bias– not only abstaining from giving to campaigns, but by claiming to be unaffiliated with any party, and some even claiming never to vote. Outside of this, journalists should make disclaimers of all interests that are related to an article. Even for columnists and editorialists, who are not neutral, explains "the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform." But this rule applies to any advocate who seeks to make a persuasive argument.

The conundrum unique to a journalactivist is all about access. A typical activist doesn’t want to undermine his own position, and is thus under additional pressure to not air the organization’s "dirty laundry". That may limit the ability of an activist to completely cover the whole story.

So there’s a fine line to walk here: between discretion and disclosure. A familiar pattern is where the shift is abrupt: an administration official quitting the government to write a tell-all. Or a campaign ends, and the insiders are now free to write the analyses. In these cases there is no turning back. On the other end of the spectrum are those posts on blogs and discussion list/forum posts which are "under the radar" that is, they aren’t suggestive of an advocacy movement.

Journalactvists would feel that they shouldn’t wait until the association ends in order to write. They do recognize that they may lose friends in the movement by exposing certain problems. But in doing so, they may be calculating than they will gain other friends who want to support their efforts. It’s a tricky balance. I’m going to work on figuring it out.


There are other concerns to the journalactivist, when putting together a story:

  • Should I direct my writings to be internal to the organization? Should I refrain from writing publicly? I haven’t been asked to do either way.
  • Are my conversations with people expected to be quoted here or not? I now have to get in the habit of asking people "Can I quote you on that?" "Is that something you want attributed to you later?"

It’s easier to describe "journalactivist" to a person in writing by pointing them to the my website, so they can have a sense about what I write about. It’s more difficult to do when talking with someone in person; I may say something like "I write for a website".


We may live in a world of would-be journalactvists. Everybody has an opinion, and now everyone can write it. I don’t think the term is constrained to web-based writers, or to suggest that all web-based writers are journalactivists. Some bloggers may see themselves as journalistactivists, though not all, as the definition of blog is still slippery. It’s just a term for someone who’s not professionally a journalist, and not committed enough to be an activist. But maybe by embracing the term, online activists to act more like journalists, and encourage online writers to consider how they might construct their arguments through a type of activism. Readers as well should recognize this strange new hybrid– of journalactivists.