Where Credibility Fails in Advocacy Journalism

[these considerations prompted by discussion  that formed part of the Bradley Manning court-martial on and prior to July 10th 2013. From the question treated there by Professor Yochai Benkler as to what constitutes Advocacy Journalism, or politically-motivated journalism, I was moved to consider what makes such journalism credible, and in what cases it is not. Problem is this: if NewsCorp does Advocacy Journalism what distinguishes it from Advocacy Journalism we might admire? Brief excerpt from those proceedings follow this article]

Advocacy for a vulnerable group – asylum seekers, for example, or the unemployed, the homeless, whales, or the as yet unborn (in the case of climate change) is alright. In general, advocacy cannot have the same kind of credibility as sound academic research unless the same degree of methodological rigour is applied (it may be).  A journalist or organisation engaged in advocacy may in some cases be the most credible source on their subject, due to interest and resources invested.

Two important considerations condition the credibility of such sources (more general treatment of credibility of sources here).

First, the advocate should not benefit personally from the advocacy. This is clear, although delineating personal benefit and legitimate aims may not always be easy.  Economic benefit is easy to measure, but other forms less so – enhanced reputation or prominence, for example.   Climate change action advocates are constantly accused of self-interest.  In this case, laughably, the accusation is an exercise in flak conducted by often well-remunerated agents with clear links to purely and sometimes openly self-interested parties.

Where an organisation or a benefactor stands to profit from its advocacy or criticism, or that of its agents, their credibility is reduced in proportion to the extent of the profit.  In the case of climate change denial, funded by the Heartland Institute, in turn funded by old energy corporations, credibility is nil.  This is not a matter of opinion. Even if some climate change deniers linked to Heartland, the fossil fuel industry, and a set of related interests, were genuine in their assertions, their credibility remains at zero for the fact of those links.

The question of links to power brings us to the second consideration.  Advocacy is not credible where it is on behalf of (or is even in too close proximity to) power.  This is particularly the case with respect to partisan power – a specific political party, or a specific for-profit organisation, for example. Again, sincerity is not enough to render a source advocating for power credible.

There is no great challenge in finding instances of this sort of partisan support of political and corporate power in Murdoch’s stable of papers.  Selective deployment of facts together with unsubstantiated claims and the use of emotive language mark News Corporation’s tabloid papers in particular as puffery and scuttlebutt (and arguably, since it’s in the service of power, propaganda). The depths to which Murdoch’s papers sink in the interests of power, though, can never justify any of the same practices from others.

To go up against power in journalism is credible. A pattern of attacking a particular powerful party, to the advantage of another, cannot be.  To advocate the interests of the vulnerable, expose the conditions and the causes of their suffering or disadvantage is admirable, and should not be seen as substantial compromise of credibility.  To expose the workaday shonk of a political personality, unconnected from any serious assault on the disenfranchised, may still be laudable, but only where all of equivalent power are subject to the same scrutiny, and it is clear there is no partisan agenda.

Where agents are consistently concerned with wrongdoing of particular parties,  regardless of the nature of the transgression, finding fault with and perhaps damaging  those parties appears the priority, rather than identifying and addressing wrongs.

These concerns are clearly indicated in the design of the Wikileaks mission statement:

 ‘..first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochialthan any governmental intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.’

If advocacy for power is irrevocably compromised, what are the powerful, and their supporters, or those who seek power for one or another reason, to do?  After all, the having of power is not a guarantee that every action is entirely corrupt, every policy, intention or message self-serving. It is part of the rhetorical game, in a democratic society, to advocate.  In a Westminster system at least two political parties have substantial power.  In countries of any political system there is likely a Government (controlling a State) and other powerful groups, organisations and players as well.  As well as those with the central interest of maintaining power, there are others whose primary purpose is seeking it.

In truth, powers and their agents advocate for themselves, but at a cost. A cost not borne by those not encumbered with power, those who do not support the powerful in a partisan way, those who turn a critical eye onto all power.  The powerful need not be pitied for the inevitable cost to credibility that accompanies their high position.  Their advantages are many – resources, reach, powerful friends and broad-based support.

Of course, the powerful, and those who advocate on their behalf, tend to play down this aspect of their interest. In attacking opponents it is natural to feign purity of intent in outrage,   omit that one reason for doing so is potential gain. The cost of honesty about advocating for power is, inevitably, compromise of the force of the attack. To maximise the damage means claiming that it is only the cause that is a consideration, and not the powerful force that might benefit from exposure of opponents.

There is clear advantage in pretending to purity with respect to the cause being advanced.

To this end, public relations practitioners directly funded by self-interested powers seek to sever discernible links with the powers they serve.  The sock-puppet twitter account is one avenue for this sort of subterfuge: the ‘ordinary guy and cat-lover’, the ‘swinging voter’ who just happens to be a fervent and unswerving supporter of politician or party.  Likewise, ‘neutral’ or ‘independent’ websites or blogs might be established to advance a party’s cause without declaring the interest.  Experts, academics, commentators on the payroll or with links to power seek to distance themselves from their benefactors.  In all corners of the PR ‘verse there are agents of power scrambling to try to achieve distance from those they advocate for, in order to cast a veil of innocence over their advocacy, and so disinherit the taint of their connection to the interests of those they support.

This cohort cruels the more honest game of politicking played by others. It is reasonable that we are alert to the placement of agents of power at every remove and in every remote corner of the polity. Naïve not to expect it.  Individuals, and media outlets of quality, must navigate this reality, too, and deal with caution and suspicion with every caller to a station, every source of evidence, every media release, every supposedly independent voice. An article in a tabloid – even a quote – can never be a credible source. To test what is credible, a first intrinsic measure is to look for even-handed critique of all sides of an argument, and of all power.

For those engaged in advocacy journalism, these realities hold strong implications.  Credibility of such work, depends, first, not on feigned distance from power, but on the reality of distance from it.  Second, this distance must be demonstrated, in order that the cost, even of alignment with the interests of power, can be avoided.

This means, even where the aim is legitimate advocacy for disenfranchised and vulnerable, or advocacy of the interests of citizens, the application of rigorous standards is pivotal.  Rhetorical, one-sided argument, is just that: the credibility of an argument that omits consideration of flaws in that argument, of other standpoints, is compromised.  Fair critical appraisal of any position argued must be demonstrated if credibility is to be retained.  This also means, as stated, that a selective approach to evidence or points of argument reasonably incurs a cost in terms of credibility.

Dispassionate language and avoiding value judgements is another measure by which credibility may be retained.  The use of emotive terms and any value judgement at all comes at cost to the case being put.  This often means, in journalistic writing of quality, that something cannot be condemned.  Questions are commonly asked as to why journalists do not call out politicians and others for omissions, evasions, or for transgressions they are suspected of.  The reality is that in quality journalism it is not possible, if it is to remain credible, to make any statement without substantiation.  Either evidence and analysis condemns, shows hypocrisy – a gap between the rhetoric of those in power and their actions – or it does not.  Where wrongdoing cannot be shown in this way, it is not a credible alternative just to say ‘this is wrong’.  Any value judgement comes at cost.

It may be seen that these stipulations for retaining credibility in advocacy journalism (or in journalism generally) are restrictive.  So they are.  These are the high standards applied in good journalism that distinguishes it from bad. The application of such standards is often interpreted as reluctance to properly condemn folly and the underhanded, to defend the upstanding and the righteous. But, if journalistic credibility is to be maintained, the cost of such indulgence is too high.

There is a place for writing of a rhetorical kind that does mingle value judgement and pathos with reason. (‘Is it good? Sir, it is pie.)  But, where this different set of instruments is applied, the result is not journalism, and cannot be credited as such.


July 10, 2013

UNOFFICAL DRAFT – 7/10/13 Morning Session


Q      Now, would you also agree that there’s a difference between the ideals of a journalist and the ideals of someone seeking maximum political impact?

A      Not necessarily.  Not necessarily.  I think journalism has a broad range.  There is a relatively narrow idea of more classical journalism.  It’s not really classical, it’s mid 20th Century journalism that’s very focused on just being a professional.  But there’s certainly politically oriented journalism.

It’s not you select anything you want. You select things, not simply because they’re interesting but because they are relevant to action in  a particular political perspective.  It doesn’t make it not journalism. It makes it a certain kind of journalism, mobilized journalism.

Q      The idea is to select things that are newsworthy when you’re a journalist?

A      No.  I’m saying there are diverse forms of journalism and all the news that’s fit to print is one model.  And it claims for itself a complete political neutrality. But I don’t think that an organization like The Nation or an organization like Fox News doesn’t take political impact of the reporting into consideration of what to report on, how to report and which facts to underline. I wouldn’t call the nation or Fox News not  journalism simply because they don’t only do all the news that’s fit to print.

Q      Now, would you agree that mass document leaking is somewhat inconsistent with journalism?

A      No.  Why would I agree with that?

Q      If there was no newsworthy news locus or nexus there?

A      If it had no news and wasn’t relevant I might agree but the very fact, it depends on what the — it depends on what you’re looking for. … So it really depends on the particular form of journalism and the particular form of question, whether what you need is cross-referencing of a very large number of documents, each of which may not itself make the particular point, but all of which together make an incredibly important point. … In any event, it is journalism.

Freedom of the Press Foundation. Manning Court-martial UNOFFICAL DRAFT. Morning Session July 10, 2013 (available at https://pressfreedomfoundation.org/sites/default/files/07-10-13-AM-session.pdf, accessed July 11, 2013).