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'Journalists should not become activists'

Benjamin Restle
June 20, 2022

Should journalists embrace or shun activism? At this year's DW Global Media Forum, media experts warn not to blur the lines between value-driven journalism and activism.

Climate protesters marching in London
Should journalists side with activists, or keep a professional distance?Image: Justin Ng/Avalon/picture alliance

Are the lines between journalism and activism becoming increasingly blurred? And if so, should journalists strive to keep a professional distance from advocates? These were some of the main questions at Monday's panel session at the 2022 Global Media Forum.

At the forum, media experts from around the world are taking part in the two-day event to discuss the future of journalism in a time of wars, crises and catastrophes.

If we've entered an era of "anti-nuance," as DW news anchor and panel host Philip Gayle asserted, does this mean subtle details, ambivalences and paradoxes are increasingly lost on audiences? Do audiences instead prefer clear-cut, black-and-white reporting, where the good and bad sides to any story are easily distinguishable, like night and day?

Where does this leave journalists? Should they take sides and tell audiences what to do and think? Should they, in other words, become activists?

They certainly should not, DW Director General Peter Limbourg, one of Monday's panelists, said. Not even, he added, when covering pressing challenges like global warming. Journalists should never abandon their critical mindset and side with activists. Otherwise, he warned, they risk straying from "the path of journalism."

DW's Director General Peter Limbourg at the 2022 Global Media Forum
DW's Director General Peter Limbourg at the 2022 Global Media ForumImage: R.Oberhammer/DW

"Journalism is complicated," Limbourg said. "We have to show the full picture; and that means it is complicated." Oversimplifying should best be left to politicians or populists, according to Limbourg. And to activists championing a cause, one might want to add, as their agenda is to agitate rather than inform.

Indeed, this sentiment was echoed by all panelists, with Patricia Toledo de Campos Mello, an investigative reporter at Brazilian Folha de Sao Paulo daily, similarly warning journalists should avoid cherry-picking sources to corroborate their own narrative.

Value-driven journalism vs. activism

Where, though, does this leave media outlets that explicitly promote a set of values? DW, for instance, professes to champion human rights and democracy in its reporting. Does such value-driven journalism risk morphing into activism?

While Peter Limbourg admitted DW was in fact "advocating" these and other values, he nevertheless cautioned that too much journalistic activism could cause further polarization in the world.

Besides, plainly stating which values a media outlet stands for, or objects to, should be welcomed as a transparent and pragmatic move. After all, the notion of journalistic objectivity — while noble — does not stand up to scrutiny: our gender, socio-economic background, upbringing, society and other factors strongly influence how we view and report on the world. We are all, in other words, value-driven, whether we want to recognize this or not.

Asking whether journalism is edging towards activism may therefore be a misleading question. The two are separate realms that ought to be kept separate — as all panelists agreed. At the same time, we should acknowledge that journalists cannot adopt a "view from nowhere" — all journalists are guided by values, selecting certain stories over others, deeming some more relevant and news-worthy than others.

A man hold a placard that reads "lying press"
Distrust of the media has been on the rise in Germany — is one-sided reporting to blame?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

Journalistic integrity

And yet, even when journalists direct our attention to one topic rather than the other, they should do their utmost to maintain their professional journalistic integrity.

Kiundu Waweru, a journalist with the Internews Earth Journalism Network, said reporters who specialize on and heavily cover certain topics may be perceived as partisan. He admitted "it's a really thin line between being a journalist and an activist." To stay clear of this pitfall and maintain one's journalistic integrity, he said, reporters should avoid only interviewing and citing sources that confirm their own perspective.

A healthy skepticism, openness towards and interest in the messy ambivalence of life therefore seem characteristic of quality journalism. 

Even though panel host Philip Gayle contends we may have entered an "anti-nuance" era, professional journalists will continue reporting on the world in all its perplexing and puzzling ambiguity. That, after all, is what sets them apart from activists. 

Edited by: Andreas Illmer