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How to discern between climate journalism and activism

This is an excerpt from an interview conducted and published in full by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Mass Communication.

Question: “How do you think news organizations need to deal with the journalism/activism binary concerning their climate journalism?”

W: Blau: An important first step for news organizations would be to include the question of how to delineate between journalism and activism into their existing codes of ethics or codes of practice. An editorial code of ethics is a bit like a legal text in that it needs to have a high degree of abstraction and thus can’t possibly define or anticipate every possible real-life conflict that comes up. (Many of the world’s large news organisations have already addressed other standard ethical questions, such as the definition and handling of conflicts of interest in their codes of ethics. I have yet to find an existing editorial code of ethics, though, that has already dealt with this activism question.)

A good editorial code of ethics gives you a basic framework and a shared language to discuss practical conflicts as they come up. Just the process alone of drafting such an added paragraph on the delineation between journalism and activism can already help a newsroom become more aware of the issues, including the harm that can be caused by needlessly accusing climate journalists of being activists simply because they’ve expressed a high degree of urgency or concern about climate change

Also, when looking at how to delineate activism from journalism, a more instructive starting point is not to try to define what journalism looks like that is free from any element of activism — an almost impossible task — but to approach the question from the other end and to ask what the typical elements of activism are. This approach will allow you then to identify potential activism in your newsroom's journalistic output more easily: Activism is very monothematic and often focused on achieving one single thing, such as the change of a law or of a specific product. It is the nature of journalism in contrast to present a multitude of possible approaches to a given problem. Activism also needs to be highly repetitive in its messaging so that a campaign can reach its one defined target or milestone. Journalism in contrast can’t afford to be that repetitive.

Activism often tends to have a tonality of ‘us versus them’ and can be based on clearly defined group identities. Good journalism, in contrast, needs to be as inclusive as possible. It also comes with the nature of activism that an activist campaign is not keen on revealing logical contradictions or unknowns in its own line of arguments or demands, whereas good journalism ideally is transparent about what is yet unknown or contradictory in anyone’s proposals. Activism also tends to speak from a position of moral superiority, which journalism does as well at times, but shouldn’t.

Having said that, there is something else I must emphasize: While journalism and activism play different roles in society and should be kept separate, they are both needed and important. Journalism owes a lot to activism and journalists should not speak pejoratively of activism. Without the work of activists of past generations, we would have no freedom of speech, no right to vote and no freedom of the press.

Activism and journalism are both valuable. They are just not the same.

The fact that journalism often struggles to remain impartial does not mean then that we may just as well give up on the idea of impartiality and objectivity overall.

The very act of striving for maximum objectivity, fairness, accuracy and transparency still creates a very different culture and journalistic product compared to journalism that has given up on or disregards these ideals.

With all our personal biases, different formative life experiences and backgrounds, we will never achieve being objective or fair, but the very act and practice of trying to do so every day is still the best we have got. It is also what our audiences in many countries clearly prefer.

(The above is an excerpt from the full interview with the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Mass Communication.)

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Co-Founder Oxford Climate Journalism Network / Trustee Director, Internews Europe and Bonn Institute. Prior: Global Chief Operating Officer Condé Nast.

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Wolfgang Blau

Wolfgang Blau

Co-Founder Oxford Climate Journalism Network / Trustee Director, Internews Europe and Bonn Institute. Prior: Global Chief Operating Officer Condé Nast.