Reporting is Activism – V
Published December 1, 2014
by Shamina de Gonzaga
Does the current media landscape contribute to further social polarization?
For reporters who pride themselves on exposing all sides of an issue, challenges to press freedom have some questioning the integrity of the profession. “My agency was always respected for its objective and accurate reporting,” a former bureau chief for a Turkish news outlet recalled. “Our reports were even used as testimony in courts. But over the past 12 years, the government’s control on the media has gotten stronger; many journalists have been fired, or warned not to write articles criticizing the government. In the US there are less constraints, but there are also limitations,” the reporter continued. “For instance, during Gaza, I noticed the American reporters were only interested in the Israeli standpoint, which made me very uncomfortable. There has to be a balance.”
In South America, similar challenges are inspiring civil society to develop alternative media platforms. Venezuelan journalists Tamoa Calzadilla and Laura Weffer, who resigned from Últimas Noticias when the agency’s new management refused to publish their news coverage of protests, noted: “People realize they’re not getting enough information and are creating initiatives to support free journalists, including through crowd funding.” In Brazil, Midia NINJA emerged during the 2013 protests as an example of citizen-produced live news coverage that contrasted with the narrative set forth by legacy media. For Midia NINJA co-founder Rafael Vilela, “Journalism is better if it has activism inside it. We are partial and we make that clear for everyone. We don’t reduce our perspective to documentation; we want to bring attention to themes.” Vilela saw the success of the sanitation workers strike during Carnaval this year in Rio de Janeiro as evidence of social change prompted by Midia NINJA reports. “The garbage workers went on strike. They faced major government and corporate pressure. As video-activists, we showed what they were working for and it made a difference in the way people [perceived the] strike. They achieved a 37% raise, which is historical for Brazil. ‘NINJA’ is an acronym for independent narratives, journalism and action.”
Whether as a result of compliance or defiance, the examples cited above signal that, at least in practice, the lines between reporting and activism are increasingly blurred. Matthew Lee of Inner City Press commented: “Where I see journalism and activism as being similar, is you have to be persistent. When I was covering Sri Lanka, if there was a stakeout with the High Commissioner of Human Rights, I would ask about Sri Lanka, even if the focus was on Syria. Some people would get angry, but the question is, who gets to decide the agenda? Some situations have more political resonance than others, but you should never be ashamed to ask about the death of 40,000 people. It’s not journalism if you just write up what they serve you; that’s transcription.” However, he argued, there are distinctions in essence: “In journalism you may choose what you start to look into, but you should report what you find. Even if it’s different from what you hoped or expected, as a journalist you have a duty to report it or give it to someone who will. I’ll do a report on Western Sahara and people from Morocco will send me material. I have to look at it and consider its validity, whereas, if I was with an advocacy group, I might look at it, but only to discredit it.”
Are people open to receiving information that may challenge our biases? “There is a danger of only finding what you want in the media,” Lee responded. “But it doesn’t make sense to wring your hands, it’s up to you to make it interesting.” As someone who believes media can reach across divides, that’s a finding I’m willing to act on.