IJF talk 2015 – Why journalists should be activists

For the first time at the International Journalism Festival, speakers were invited to share their vision of what journalism should be about during an individual presentation of only 15 minutes.

Dan Gillmor, teacher at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, decided to speak about why all journalists
“should start thinking about themselves as activists in the world we live in”.

In lots of places around the world, journalism is indeed activism because “truth-telling is an act designed to bring about change”. Whereas in other places like in most Western democracies, where free speech is entrenched in the journalism tradition, the idea of journalists as activists is sometimes seen as taking sides, he said.

“But there is a long tradition of advocacy journalism”, where exposing injustices is designed to stir debate. “In America, in the 20th century people did exactly that. They were called muckrackers”, he said.

When talking about activism, he said he’s talking about “people like Human Rights Watch, which consistently does the best reporting about human rights issues around the world” or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which covers threats to labor rights in the US. Dan Gillmor said that since, today, every organization can become a media in its own rights, broadcasting its message and publishing research online, journalists should recognize them for what they are.

“ACLU probably files more freedom of information requests and more suits than all the media organizations combined”, he said.

However, he said, journalists should be able to know the difference between advocates doing journalism, and others basing their work on untruths, unfairness,
and contravening journalism.

Still, this evolution is making some traditional journalists nervous, he said. “In America, we’re told again and again that one of the core values of journalism is objectivity. But we have to recognize that at least on some issues, we cannot be objective. On some issues, we have to take a stance.”

Dan Gillmor said that what can be perceived as attacks on fundamental freedoms cannot be covered with neutrality. “We have to be openly biased”, he said.

Governments, through surveillance programs and companies, through their terms of services and control over certain markets, are attacking the core values
of our democracies, he said, sometimes for motives that are unseen or disguised.

“These folks are locking down a lot of our technology and communications, effectively controlling what we say and what we do. This is a betrayal of the
Internet”, which at its core is about the decentralization of power. On the Internet, nobody should need permission to speak or to innovate, he said.

“I don’t want to ask permission to do these things”.

“No society existing under pervasive surveillance can say it’s built on liberty. If we don’t actively oppose mass surveillance, we are not fit to call ourselves journalists, in my view.”

Journalists should campaign for truly open networks, contrary to what telecom companies are doing, he said.

“If we journalists don’t explain this to the public and then campaign to protect these freedoms, how can we call ourselves journalists?”

He made a reference to discussions surrounding the TransPacific Partnership, which would give certain companies more power over their competitors outside the US; and Wikileaks, who suffered financial issues after it published the State Department documents on its platform and the payment systems used to receive
contributions from users were shut down.

Talking about social media, he said journalists should think about “what it means to rely on centralized services like Facebook and Twitter”.

“They do provide useful services but they’re not advocate for free speech in a convenient way. These enterprises are in some way becoming the new editors
of the Internet. Do journalists understand that feeding Facebook is feeding a company that plans to undervalue the Internet?”, he asked.

He said journalists shouldn’t ignore the nuances in these debates, but they have a duty to stand up and defend fundamental liberties when those are directly

“I ask my friends in the journalism world: please take a stance, be proud, be an activist. If you don’t control your destiny where speech is controlled
by others, you won’t be happy about the outcome. This is part of your job.”
Delphine Reuter