The slippery slope of advocacy journalism


 A Detroit News article recently considered the advocacy role of ACLU Michigan in leading the reportage of the Flint water crisis, in which thousands of residents of one of Michigan’s largest cities were exposed to unhealthy levels of lead in their drinking water.

The ACLU reporting resulted in Curt Guyette, formerly of the Metro Times, being named journalist of the year by the Michigan Press Association*. That remarkable development punctuates a growing challenge to journalism, and  democracy, in this young century.

It’s not to say that Guyette’s reporting is not award-worthy. His work unmistakably led the way in revealing Flint’s lead problem, perhaps in spite of the slightly confused state and federal bureaucracies contending with the idea that they were responding to “a reporter with the ACLU.” There’s no disputing the reportorial leadership. There ought to be an award for that. The only real question is whether a press organization should be bestowing it.

The real challenge, however, is in how to assess the credibility of reporting that comes from non-traditional news sources. This isn’t a new problem, but it is an ever-expanding one.

Contrarians, of course, will earnestly suggest that the same question could be asked about traditional news sources, including newspapers and television and radio stations.

The answer there is somewhat more straight forward, their general credibility having been established over the past 150 years for newspapers and for a shorter, but perhaps equally significant, time period for television and radio.  That very history that makes traditional news organizations stodgy and slow to change in the digital era keeps them credible and more resistant to changing long-established their reporting standards.

The real challenge of the day, discerning the legitimacy of reporting by groups that have political agendas, is perhaps best illustrated with an example on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

When the Center For Medical Progress began posting videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of embryonic body parts, there was little discussion of journalism awards. Like some of the ACLU’s work in Flint, the journalism manifested itself in edited videos. In this case, they were widely seen as unethically edited videos, although the standards by which they are measured seem to vary depending on the prism through which one views abortion.

This is not to argue that the work of the Center For Medical Progress rivals that of the ACLU, nor that the organizations are equatable, although they’re both controversial. The ACLU has been fighting to protect constitutional freedoms for about 100 years, whereas the Center For Medical Progress has been around for three, and perhaps merely for the purpose of discrediting Planned Parenthood.

Likewise, the causes advanced by the organizations differ significantly, at least in terms of public opinion. Eventually in this new era, as more advocacy organizations hire former journalists (or grow their own), the groups and causes will continue to move closer together, increasingly muddying the line between advocacy and journalism.

There’s a temptation to say that the reporting itself will differentiate the credible from the non-credible. It’s easy to say, but difficult to believe. Traditionally, work produced by news organizations is viewed with the idea that the primary goal is the accuracy of the reporting, whereas journalism produced by advocacy organizations must be viewed with the notion that the organization’s agenda is the goal. Although certainly it is possible, there’s no reason to believe that an advocacy organization will publish “journalism” that runs counter to its avowed mission.

Interestingly, in these times, many former news reporters have moved onto writing for advocacy organizations, taking their personal brand and credibility with them.

As it was with Guyette, a long-time writer with the Detroit alternative weekly Metro Times before joining the ACLU, this individual credibility certainly played a role in both the responsiveness of the subjects as well as the respect the journalism earned from the Michigan Press Association.

Good, honest journalism can be produced almost anywhere and by almost anyone. But how is one to know which to trust?

In this day, in this age, it will only keep getting more difficult to tell.

See the most recent ACLU movie, “Here’s To Flint”:

*In the interest of full disclosure, the news organization by which I am employed, The Detroit News, has not been a member of the Michigan Press Association for the last several years and has not been an entrant to its contests. A Detroit News reporter, however, apparently was nominated for journalist of the year in 2015.


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