The Dangers of Advocacy Journalism

*Editor’s Note: Please allow me a moment from my farm talk and cow pics to speak on another subject- one that is dear to my heart and part of my education and career path – journalism. 

The Background: In late 2014, Rolling Stone magazine made headlines for its article “A Rape On Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which told the story of a University of Virginia co-ed, named Jackie for the article, who was sexually abused by a group of men during a fraternity party. The article was salacious, damaging and all anyone could talk about. There were few facts and even fewer names but enough believable content for the author and its main subject received praise for the work and attention drawn to such a divisive topic.

Fast forward a few weeks and questions began to surface and cracks began to show. Move ahead to present day and a report from the Columbia Journalism School released earlier this week highlights the multiple failures by reporters, editors and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone to question the validity and truth behind the article. The story was officially retracted and a real conversation about journalism was ignited.

Today: During the publicity tour for her article, Erdely made it known that her was goal to write an article exposing sexual abuse and violence on a college campus. After several individuals turned down her offer to make them the subject, she found Jackie, who was willing to dish out the dirt she needed. From there a scandal-plagued and largely unproven article was written, edited and published.

The Lesson: Journalism has always been tainted with emotion and a point-of-view. Journalists are human and therefore unable to completely seal off their thoughts, feelings and attitudes toward a subject, person or issue. But the really great journalists are those who take an unbiased and unfiltered stance and report the facts, in raw, unaltered form.

Sadly, those journalists are going the way of the dodo bird and dinosaurs, replaced by writers with a mission, a drum to beat and a point to prove. The sources are not the ones driving the story but merely there to support their theory and humanize a talking point. Writing to prove a point or move a message has been labeled advocacy journalism and it has taken over our news feeds.

The First Amendment is vital to the health of our democracy, the vehicle to spreading passion and the channel to new worlds and issues. But taken too far, journalism, especially advocacy journalism, can be damaging not only for the news industry but for the people, places and businesses caught in the tangled webs of lies and half-truths.

Don’t get me wrong, I engage in advocacy journalism each time I update my blog. I write to prove my point and illustrate an issue. These are not news articles suitable for front page publication. They are merely opinion articles with a few facts wrapped into a tantalizing story line.

The burden then lies with the reader to sort between fact and fiction. With headlines hitting us on every screen we own, it’s often hard to distinguish between unbiased reporting and advocacy journalism. And it’s not uncommon for a piece of advocacy to become a rallying cry for an issue as readers forget to find the other side of the story.

Reporters also have a role to play in restoring validity and trust to the journalism industry. Journalists at all levels covering all topics, must get back to reporting the news, not creating the news. All journalists want to unearth and tell great stories but the stories need to be true and complete or else the reporter is doing more than telling stories, he/she is filling in holes with plaster that will eventually crumble.

Advocacy journalism can help change our world and further great causes but in the case of a mission gone awry, it can bring down an entire publication and ruin the readers’ trust in an already damaged news industry.

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