Last Friday, media mogul Oprah Winfrey delivered a commencement speech to graduates of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. In her 23 minute-long speech, Winfrey dished out several familiar, commencement-style blanket statements as she encouraged the crowd of Annenberg graduates to make the world a “better place.”
But she also posed a challenging question: “What are you willing to stand for?”
In the world of journalism, many have asked this question and many have refused to answer. To reporters who have been trained to approach stories with complete objectivity, the idea of “taking a stand” — of advocating for a certain cause — is nothing more than a disruption to their search for absolute, unadulterated truth. But we need to realize that, in many ways, exposing the truth is in fact a form of advocacy. And it’s not a bad thing. It’s journalism.
Reporters have had a long history of stepping outside the boundaries of objectivity and pushing for what they saw as positive change to society. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people who took on this role were known as “muckrakers”: Investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, for example, was a leading figure in the anti-lynching movement. In 1968, renowned television news anchor and “most trusted man in America” Walter Cronkite famously opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War during a special CBS News broadcast — which, in turn, shifted the attitudes of a public that was becoming increasingly distrustful of the government.
Today, as the label of “fake news” looms over the industry like a dark cloud, many reporters have shied away from the idea that their work should have a specific purpose. In an increasingly digital environment where encyclopedias of information can be accessed with a few finger taps, many of journalists’ duties have been determined by their responsibilities to take the most pertinent stories and present them in a manner the public can understand — to make sense of a chaotic amount of information.
This concept represents a shift in perceptions of what Winfrey referred to as the “editorial gatekeeper”: Whereas journalists were once able to control what information the public can access, the rise of social media platforms and “citizen journalism” has made that information ubiquitous and, at times, uncontrollable. But while they may not always take an overt stand like Wells or Cronkite, the reporters disseminating and repackaging content are inherently active players in their stories as well.
Journalists have long debated whether they should write for or about a community. But, as previously mentioned, the two options are often inextricably linked — intentional or not. We must realize that although many journalists may execute an objective reporting technique — resembling an uninvolved yet informed bystander — they contribute to the values and beliefs of the community they are writing about. The choices they make in including and excluding certain perspectives all contribute to the general message readers take away from a story.
Therefore, considering that they have a powerful and far-reaching platform at their disposal, journalists have an obligation to speak both their voices as well as those of populations who remain unheard. As Oprah mentioned in her speech, graduating from college is a privilege not everyone has access to. Becoming a journalist is a privilege not everyone has access to. We live in a world where, as USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay said, “so many people are shouting to be heard.” Journalists, then, must also learn to listen. They cannot make the public understand a story if they do not first understand it themselves.
But truth will not encourage progressive activism if readers cannot tell whether or not that truth is, well, true. Now more than ever, journalists must work for the public’s trust. Much of the difference between advocacy journalism and propaganda lies in transparency, which entails not only informing readers of where and how they got information, but also remaining accountable when that information isn’t correct. Being an active, responsible journalist means confronting faults and inherent biases and overcoming them with the public’s best interests in mind. It also means encouraging an active, responsible readership — one that checks the facts and ethics behind articles and contributes to discussions in the comments sections.
As our world continues to evolve and as perspectives continue to diversify, the platforms communicating that diversity will shift as well. Indeed, it goes without saying that our society — the values and ideas that constitute the modern zeitgeist — is changing at an unprecedented pace. But we need to realize that journalists, too, will be a part of that change. They always have.