The etymology of journalism has its origins in English and French. In late 15th century English, the meaning of journal was a “book for inventories and daily accounts.” In French, journal was likened to a “personal diary.” A journalist, then, is just one who keeps a journal or a daily account of things. He is the agent that documents a landscape of movement, extracts a scene from daily life, usually in a significant way: I have always believed that anything that one wrote was significant in some way, even if only for the one act of choosing to document that thing. That act, where he chooses what to document, is what makes his journal that “personal diary.”
Because of that choice, the subject is hardly escapable from the journal itself. Grammatically, this is self-evident: without the journalist, there can be no journalism. But there is a more obvious point to concede. Agency is choice—without choice, we are not agents of our fate, our art or profession; we’re reduced as tools used by someone else wielding the power to choose.
Assuming that a journalist is an agent of his own choice (an assumption that is not fair to have of legacy media), then there is an immediate bias inherent in his account. What is being reported is as equally affecting as how it is reported. In choosing the what, the journalist is moved by an individual impulse to report a specific thing. This is called his beat, a thematic speciality. This is not a sin so long as he both maintains neutrality in his account, meaning he does not manipulate the scene in front of him, physically or rhetorically, and does not seek to publish certain incidents in order to suggest something about its prevalence or statistical significance.
But how a thing is reported may easily be a cardinal sin, sure to corrupt both oneself and journalism’s meaningful ambition to tell the truth. The how is referred to as the angle, or perspective he wishes to take in telling the story. The angle can be informative and fair, or accusatory and biased. This angle may be individualized, but still falling within the common criteria that all parties reasonably accept.
Both ways may be reduced under the umbrella of what is called activist journalism; and to be clear, broadly speaking one may be an activist for music or the arts, in an apolitical and uncompromising way. As we see, though, the term becomes redundant because all journalism may be activist in spirit, insofar as what we choose and how we report it are at the discretion of the journalist. But a journalist is oftentimes not distinguished by his individual pursuits, nor is the quality of his work judged on its merit; it is rather common practice to identify a journalist as belonging to either a political party or political persuasion. This practice may sometimes have more to do with what readers do not like rather than the merit of the report, and other times the quality of the work is clearly partisan.
Because everything is visibly partisan today, when we use the term activist journalism, we aren’t referring to some cause significant to the journalist as an individual, but a cause that the journalist undertakes on behalf of the sea of his society that subscribes to it. In other words, activism denotes a social movement that will be carried on with or without the one individual. So here we may have networks composed of talking heads that parrot the party-line narrative dictated by those that pay their salaries, or ideologues that care more about their cause rather than the often inconvenient truth. A recent example is the New York Times’ confirmation, 17 months later, that the “Hunter Biden laptop story” was real, after legacy media initially dismissed it as “Russian disinformation,” in tandem voices so harmonious that anyone might suspiciously wonder if they were coordinated.
The prognosis to these inherent issues of journalism, that of allowing bias to prevent the honest act of journaling, is not to wave the wand of rhetoric and reassert its noble pursuit: “to tell the truth and be objective.” This is futile and says nothing. That ideal, if ever once really alive, should be a given, but it cannot exist on its own—it barely exists by itself. There must be recognition of the inherent issue of bias as explicated above and how easily corruptible reporting may become. We must be aware of the fact that we will never be able to be truly objective, but also respond to that fact appropriately, as it does not give us a license to forget about objectivity completely. Consider sociologist Clifford Geertz:
“I have never been impressed by the argument that as complete objectivity is impossible (as of course it is)… one might as well let one’s sentiments run loose…That is like saying that, as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, one might as well conduct surgery in a sewer.”
The press needs to do a better job communicating, not with disregard to politics, but in explication of it, clearly situating us within the political conversation. This can be done with fair commentaries that are able to provide the dialogue for the conversation and with the journalist himself genuinely presenting the arguments and issues under concern by putting the noble pursuit that journalism demands over himself—a feat that is not perfect, nor ever will be, but which can be managed in a way that does not aggravate already divisive issues.
So when a story is dismissed as “Russian disinformation” without evidence and the perspective that one adds is nothing more than reiteration of a prevailing narrative that must be pushed out lest the ’cause’ die, then the journalist is prioritizing ’cause’ over himself, the sea of his society over the duty of his profession. The very least he could do in any situation is to admit where he stands. Readers and viewers deserve that, at minimum, do they not?
Because the press has lost the ability, or maybe desire, to report without team preference, it has become the communicative means of ideology. A precarious situation we’ve found ourselves in. And evermore precarious if we are not careful.