Changing the world, not just reporting it

August 16, 2007

it seems like I didn’t make a friend of Fairfax columnist Karl du Fresne at the EPMU’s Journalism Matters conference last weekend in Wellington. Karl’s written a column that appeared today in both the Press (Christchurch) and the Dominion Post (Wellington) Politics threaten media progress – Perspectives in which he criticises me for arguing that objectivity in journalism is dead and for declaring my socialist politics. You can read a previous post on market journalism and objectivity to see where I’m coming from.

I stand by what I said – that the point of journalism is to change the world, not just report it. I’ve written a letter to the editor in response to Karl’s column and here’s the text:

Letter to the editor

The Press

16 August 2007

I’d like to quickly respond to Karl du Fresne’s piece about the Journalism Matters conference in Wellington last weekend (The Press 16 August). The idea that journalism is more about changing the world than merely reporting it is not something new that has recently become entrenched in journalism schools. If readers care to look beyond the rhetoric it becomes clear that the news media has played this role for more than 200 years.

The original press in Britain, Europe and North America was a highly partisan operation. Newspapers took a stand on issues and attempted to influence their readers. The press was influential in changing public opinion about slavery for example. The French and American revolutions were also stirred by the press of the day. Radicals were keen to have their own press in order to inform and mobilise supporters.

If Karl thinks that this has ever disappeared from the news media he’s wrong. William Hearst and Joseph Pulitizer both used their newspapers to push the United States into a war with Mexico in the late 19th centuries. The American press was a propaganda tool used to great effect to generate public sympathy for the allies’ cause in both world wars this century.

The news media took sides during the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict too. Today, Rupert Murdoch is proud of the role his newspapers and television networks played in building public support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In a nutshell, the freedom of the press is now, and always has been, the freedom of the news owners to push their own views. On the other side of the ledger, some of the best journalism has also led to galvanised public opinion and, yes, world-moving change. The BBC’s Michael Burk reported famine in Africa and mad it clear that he was angry and upset about what he’d seen. This mobilised huge relief efforts that no doubt saved thousands of lives. The exposure of thalidomide in the UK in the late 1960s led to that drug being taken off the market as a treatment for morning sickness. John Pilger’s crusading work over many years is another example of what I describe as the journalism of engagement.

Objectivity as a principle of journalism is no longer the holy grail. The fact that some journalism educators are prepared to say so and to put such ideas in front of their students is just a recognition of this idea. In the respected Columbia Journalism Review, Brent Cunningham has written a thoughtful piece called “Rethinking Objectivity”. He makes the point that often it is an excuse for lazy journalism and that it forces reporters to rely on official sources. He also argues that it allows the news agenda to be captured by the “spin doctors”.

Finally, I would commend George Orwell’s famous essay “Why I write”, in which he argues for an engaged and partisan journalism that tackles the difficult political issues of the day. He was writing at the close of World War Two, but if you read between the lines, the sentiments expressed echo down the years. I come not to praise objectivity, but to bury it.

Martin Hirst,

AUT, Auckland


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