mueller43_ Mark WilsonGetty Images_journalism Mark WilsonGetty Images

Can Journalists Be Activists?

At a time when autocrats are consolidating power by attacking “the media,” old debates about journalism’s role in a democracy and how journalists should conduct themselves need to be revisited. Advocacy is no less legitimate and valuable than reporting, as long as it is based on a commitment to truth.

PRINCETON – Should journalists say and write what they think? Recent controversies have given new urgency to old questions about journalists’ professional ethics and political role in democracy.

An ongoing defamation lawsuit has exposed how – and how often – Fox News anchors lied to their viewers about claims that the 2020 US presidential election was “stolen.” The BBC suspended former soccer striker Gary Lineker for tweets criticizing the British government’s refugee policies, allegedly in violation of the broadcaster’s traditional commitment to impartiality. And journalists everywhere are debating whether taking a political position crosses some dangerous line into “activism.”

Yet the conventional distinction between “journalist” and “activist” is badly conceived, because there has never been anything passive about journalists’ role. At a time when autocrats are consolidating power by attacking “the media” (or dismissing all critical reporting as “fake news”), those who refuse to call out such behavior are effectively tolerating rising authoritarianism. There is nothing neutral about their silence.

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