Every news outlet has its ‘bias.’ So just what is the difference between the ‘alternative’ and the ‘mainstream’ press?

Regular Interim contributor Sue Careless was invited by the Canadian Association of Journalists to speak on a panel discussion addressing advocacy journalism during the CAJ’s annual conference in Halifax, April 7-9. Ms. Careless is a professional member of both the CAJ and The Periodical Writers Association of Canada and is also an associate member of the Canadian Church Press. The following formed the basis for her comments in Halifax.

By Sue Careless
The Interim

Before speaking about advocacy journalism, we should probably define our terms. An advocate speaks or pleads on behalf of another, giving the other a face and a voice. Advocacy journals – sometimes called alternative publications – have a declared bias, a publicly acknowledged editorial point of view. They are upfront about their editorial position even on their masthead.

Mass media – sometimes called mainstream media – have biases which are often hidden or implicit. Because their editorial viewpoint supposedly reflects what the majority values, no one thinks much about it. Everyone seems to agree, so there is no apparent bias. Only those holding a minority point of view are seen as biased.

Of course the mass media can also be out of step with the majority opinion, and not reflect public opinion fairly and impartially. A six-year study by Newswatch Canada released January 24, 2000 found that only 19 per cent of stories about religion covered positive aspects of faith, such as the role of churches in charities and social outreach programs. While 87 per cent of Canadians hold religious beliefs, the study found that coverage of religion tends to be “sparse and superficial.” And in a random sampling of articles about abortion, researchers found “pro-choice” articles outnumbered pro-life articles by more than two to one.

In cases like these, when the mainstream media ignores, trivializes or seriously distorts your cause or your community, then your cause or community needs its own media. If your people are never quoted or they are quoted inaccurately, if they are stereotyped or misinformation is spread about them, then they need their own face and voice. Every significant social movement has had its own media.

But there is good advocacy journalism and there is bad.

Rules for advocacy journalism

Being an advocate journalist is not the same as being an activist. No matter how dear a cause is to journalist’s heart, there are lines which should never be crossed by a professional journalist.

If you only spout slogans and cliches, and rant and rave then you are not doing honest journalism. You need to articulate complex issues clearly and carefully. If you are only a polemicist, you won’t educate or persuade anyone, and those “on side” will find you boring and repetitious. They will not learn the most current information they need to engage in effective debate in the public square. Slogans alone won’t cut it in public discourse.

Can a journalist have a declared bias and still practice journalism in a professional manner? Yes. In fact you may be seen as even more credible if your perspective is acknowledged up front.

A journalist writing for the advocacy press should practice the same skills as any journalist. You don’t fabricate or falsify. If you do you will destroy the credibility of both yourself as a working journalist and the cause you care so much about. News should never be propaganda. You don’t fudge or suppress vital facts or present half-truths.

You shouldn’t take something wildly out of context or treat an extremely nuanced subject as a sound bite. There must be a general fairness and thoroughness. Verify your facts and quotes. Use multiple sources and try to cite neutral sources for statistics.

You use your eyes and ears when you are news gathering. If you are covering a protest and a demonstrator hits a police officer or shouts profanities, you are obliged as a journalist to report those facts, embarrassing though they may be to a cause you personally support.

If your editor won’t print such facts then you should seriously consider whether to continue writing for that publication. Even if a media outlet’s philosophy agrees with yours, if the tone is too inflammatory, you shouldn’t work for it.

A good journalist must play devil’s advocate. You must argue against your own convictions. In an interview, you still have to ask the hard questions of possible heroes, the tough questions, even of the people you admire. You are not writing public relations for them and they will not be vetting your piece.

You will be far more credible if you write with a critical edge. You cannot view your cause or community through rose-coloured glasses. In covering adoption, for example, you must explore the “grief triangle.” (Adoption, for all its benefits, is said to involve grief on the part of the birth parents, the adopting parents who have often had to deal with infertility, and the child, who will at some point “grieve” the loss of the birth parents.) Similarly, in discussing sudden disability you talk about the initial clinical depression and suicidal despair. You don’t rush to happy, Pollyanna endings.

In advocacy journalism you must have the humility to listen carefully and accurately to those you would speak for, and not arrogantly assume you know what will be said or thought or argued. You must grasp the nuances. You need to continually revisit and listen again as the legal, political and social map shifts, even if the basic principles remain the same.

You may believe something in theory or in principle, but how does it play out in practice? I am not disabled or the parent of a disabled child, nor am I dying of an incurable disease, nor am I pregnant and distressed. I must listen with respect to those who are and who make some incredibly courageous choices in the midst of conflicting circumstances.

“Balanced” coverage

Advocacy journalism does not generally give equal time to opponents, but neither does the mainstream press. The Globe and Mail is not likely to let Conrad Black write an op-ed piece, nor is the gay newspaper Xtra! going to give Laura Schlessinger a platform, arguing that both figures already have sufficient press or airtime in other venues.

The Interim is not likely to give an op-ed platform to Henry Morgentaler, since the major media have already covered him at length. The Interim, however, should refer to Morgentaler’s best arguments, not his worst, quote him directly, accurately, at length and in context. In opinion writing, as in debate, you must be able to answer your opponent’s best arguments. Does your opposition, moreover, have some valid criticism you should hear?

Even when a juicy story or outrageous statement emerges from your opponents, you don’t rush to print it until it is confirmed. You should even put on the brakes and give your opponent the opportunity for a disclaimer, the benefit of the doubt.

Advocacy journalists should also cover stories that may be unflattering to their own cause or community. Bias at its worst is a blind spot or automatic judgement such as believing that a leader in a cause or community can do no wrong. There is a temptation to counsel the wrongdoer behind the scenes, out of public view so no disgrace falls on the cause or community. But by publicly exposing the leader’s errors, which strong advocacy journalism should do, the wrongdoer is held more accountable and there is less likelihood of further victims.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that some environmental activists let loose 400 farm-raised minks, one of which gets rabies and bites someone. Most city papers will write off the activists as cranks. A responsible environmental publication won’t try to justify what happened but analyze why one shouldn’t engage in such vandalism. So a “green” advocacy paper could offer deeper, more thoughtful coverage than the mainstream media does.

Why we need advocacy media

Why should we trust the major media to be impartial just because they have a larger audience? Recently it was discovered that Seventeen and Family Circle magazines and the television show Beverley Hills 90210 were paid to deliver anti-drug messages at the behest of the United States government. They can be bought.

In a major lumber town where half the jobs are in the lumber industry will the city paper report fairly? Won’t Greenpeace or any other environmentalists be seen as cranks and be portrayed that way in the city paper?

Can you trust media with a vested interest? No, but no single source should ever be trusted completely. Vested interests are going to work harder at unearthing evidence for their cause or constituency for which the mass media wouldn’t bother digging.

Who will break the unpopular stories in which everyone has a vested interest? Several years ago, Eye in Toronto argued that an asbestos factory should be closed down because no human should breathe in asbestos fibres. Asbestos workers are prone to asbestosis, a fatal disease.

The asbestos factory was promoted by the government. The company didn’t want the plant closed. The union wanted to protect the workers’ health and safety but also their jobs and so even the union didn’t want the plant closed. All the major players were implicated. Only a small, radical advocacy paper would talk about the problem.

Sometimes media don’t advocate on behalf of those they claim to represent. Even though Chatelaine prides itself on covering women’s issues, it recently turned down a story on accidents caused by air bags in cars. Yet most of the people injured in airbag accidents are small women and children. Instead the airbag safety story was picked up by Canadian Living and, after a fatal airbag accident, covered in an editorial in the Globe and Mail.

Certain people will agree to an interview with the alternative media who will not speak to the major media. They are confident that you understand where they are coming from and so they trust you and will open up to you. At the same time they have to grasp that you will still ask them some tough questions.

For instance, the Gideons, a Christian organization, wouldn’t speak to the National Post a few months ago, but would talk with ChristianWeek editor, Doug Koop. The National Post had to resort to quoting Koop and thus the Gideons indirectly.

There is a desperate need for more social services for disabled adults or respite care for families with disabled children. The disabled community understands that a journal advocating on their behalf understands what they mean. When they complain about a lack of services and facilities, they’re not asking for assisted suicide but rather for a humane way to live with their disabilities.

Often the whole story isn’t being told in the major media. Will the five-part special be on how euthanasia is needed or how palliative care can be improved?

Society is made up of various communities of interest like small, overlapping circles. Mass media aims at the whole pool and barely skims the surface. The alternative media, which aims at a smaller circle, a smaller audience, can dive deeper.

Alternative media have a good sense of their audience. They understand the nuances, the various sub-groups within their community, the subtle shadings that an outsider would not grasp. Advocacy journals will entertain dissenting views on tactics, policies and philosophical differences, and on related side-issues especially in columns, if not in editorials.

The foundational principle of The Interim is that life is inviolable from conception to natural death. It is the basic assumption of its audience. All other issues are to varying degrees and in different ways open to discussion. The pro-abortion movement in Canada has had no need for a publication like The Interim because the mass media, particularly Homemakers, Chatelaine and the Globe and Mail have strongly advocated the pro-abortion position since the 1960s.

Editors of the alternative press assume their readers are also reading mainstream publications. So much in the alternative press is written to answer, clarify, balance or refute the mainstream media. It would be inadvisable to read only The Interim or the Catholic Register or the Jewish Tribune, just as it would be inadvisable to read only the National Post or the Globe and Mail or the Chronicle-Herald. We need professionally written alternative journals as well as the mainstream press if we truly wish to enhance public discourse.