Can journalists be activists? And if so, what is the difference?

Sanne Breimer
5 min readMar 2, 2021

If recent years have taught black journalists anything, it’s that public embarrassment appears to make our bosses better hear us. — Wesley Lowery

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I was about to share an image on Instagram of a group of women protesting and holding up the sign with the text ‘We’ll be less activist if you are less shit’. Before pressing the publish button doubt came to my mind, I asked myself: do I actually identify as an activist? Even though I’d definitely say I’m a journalist?

A few months ago I interviewed Malaysian journalist Kuek Ser Kuang Keng and asked him about this matter as well. His answer was interesting because of his work experience in both Asian and Western newsrooms:

“It’s not an issue in Malaysia or in most of the developing countries that aren’t democratic, because just doing independent journalism is something that’s not possible in those nations. The mainstream media are controlled by the state, or backed by the state and censorship is everywhere. In that kind of context, you don’t talk about whether you’re a journalist or an activist. If you care about independent journalism, you’re an activist. It’s as simple as that. So when I encountered this discussion in the West I thought ‘what?!’. If you want to do independent journalism in my region, if you want to do objective journalism, you have to fight, you have to push back against censorship, push back against the policies they’re trying to impose on freedom of expression, on media or press freedom. So to me, when you’re a good journalist you have to be involved in the fight for media freedom, for freedom of expression. That’s embedded in your profession. You can’t say I’m objective so I’m not involved.”

And being involved to Keng also means protesting:

“When there is a rally to fight for more freedom of expression, you have to be there because that’s how you protect your profession and your work ethics.
In Malaysiakini where I worked for eight years, we called it advocacy journalism. We had a set of values to uphold. For example, whenever there was a case of human rights abuse, we wouldn’t say ‘oh A claimed this and B claimed this’ in order for the reader to make his own judgement. No. we would tell you this is a human rights abuse, and according to laws or international conventions, this is wrong. So we have to make our stand there. I’m still a strong believer that if you’re a journalist, you might not be involved in a movement like Black Lives Matter or animal rights but at least you have to commit to the fight for freedom of expression, freedom of media and good governance.”

“Being an anti-racist isn’t an opinion”

Kuek Ser Kuang Keng mentions Black Lives Matters and isn’t sure if journalists should actively participate in that movement. The question got asked a lot amongst journalists last year when the demonstrations went global. Linda A. Thompson writes that “traditional ethics rules have long prescribed that journalists keep their opinions to themselves; one donation, T-shirt, or Tweet could have major consequences for a journalist’s career”.

She also quotes Dutch editor-in-chief of OneWorld, Seada Nourhussen who says: “Being an anti-racist isn’t an opinion”. Reporters of OneWorld are aloud to attend demonstrations and Nourhussen isn’t afraid of being biased because she’s convinced they can still critically report about BLM: “Just giving a hypothetical example, say, we were to find out that money donated to Black Lives Matter wasn’t properly being used, we would cover that”.
For Nourhussen attending a protest march doesn’t intervene with applying journalism ethics. I guess it’s not so much about the fact that journalists have an opinion, it’s more about the transparency about it.

Objectivity discussion is back on the table

Since Twitter came into our lives, journalists are already much more outspoken and easily approachable than before social media exists. It’s a development we can’t return around and therefore the discussion about the possibility of objectivity and neutrality is back on the table.

Wesley Lowery wrote an opinion for The New York Times just after Black LIves Matter, with the title “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists” saying:

“Since American journalism’s pivot many decades ago from an openly partisan press to a model of professed objectivity, the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses. And those selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers. On opinion pages, the contours of acceptable public debate have largely been determined through the gaze of white editors.
The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral. When black and brown reporters and editors challenge those conventions, it’s not uncommon for them to be pushed out, reprimanded or robbed of new opportunities.”

Lowery mentions Twitter in his piece, as a platform where “Black journalists are making demands, instead of pleading with management like before”.

Blindspots in social justice activism

When it comes to racism, I believe white journalists still have a lot of blind spots which makes them think it’s biased to be anti-racism. On other topics regarding human rights abuse, the doubts aren’t there. It would be good if more newsrooms focus on systemic racism as a framework in which inequality sustains. At the end of the day joining a Black Lives Matters protest is just on the surface of a whole range of actions that can be done on the topic of antiracism. Thoroughly investigate and critically question your own position in the story are important aspects of that process.

“Journalism contributes to activism”

Journalists are human beings, so they are biased, but what is new is the discussion about this issue outside of the newsrooms.

Apart from that, what if we would conclude that journalism in its core is activism as well. There will still be some difference and I think Belgian journalist Gie Goris, who was editor-in-chief of news platform and magazine MO* for seventeen years, described that in a valuable way, saying:

“MO* has always placed itself within the activist civil society. The journalism we practice contributes to that activism. We are not outside that, but we are different. Political activism is focused on results. The stories you emphasize support the change you intend. You ignore inconvenient stories because they get in the way of the intended goal. That is legitimate within political activism, but journalism cannot afford it. Journalists look for stories as they are, in all their complexity.”

The world isn’t black and white, on the contrary: it’s very complex.

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Sanne Breimer

Exploring the solutions to the lack of inclusion in journalism, focusing on decolonising journalism and discussing whiteness, Eurocentrism and objectivity.