Advocacy journalism is a genre of journalism that intentionally and transparently adopts a non-objective viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose. Because it is intended to be factual, it is distinguished from propaganda. It is also distinct from instances of media bias and failures of objectivity in media outlets, which attempt to be—or which present themselves as—objective or neutral.
Traditionally, advocacy and criticism are restricted to editorial and op-ed pages, which are clearly distinguished in the publication and in the organization's internal structure. News reports are intended to be objective and unbiased. In contrast, advocacy journalists have an opinion about the story they are writing. For example, that political corruption should be punished, that more environmentally friendly practices should be adopted by consumers, or that a government policy will be harmful to business interests and should not be adopted. This may be evident in small ways, such as tone or facial expression, or large ways, such as the selection of facts and opinions presented.
Some advocacy journalists reject that the traditional ideal of objectivity is possible in practice, either generally, or due to the presence of corporate sponsors in advertising. Some feel that the public interest is better served by a diversity of media outlets with a variety of transparent points of view, or that advocacy journalism serves a similar role to muckrakers or whistleblowers.
Advocacy journalism is practiced by a broad range of mainstream media outlets and alternative media and special interest publications and programs, but might also apply to a single article in an otherwise-neutral publication, such as political stories in Rolling Stone; there are also "advocacy journals", or "alternative publications", which are marketed to target groups based on their interests or biases, for example:
In an April 2000 address to the Canadian Association of Journalists, Sue Careless gave the following commentary and advice to advocacy journalists, which seeks to establish a common view of what journalistic standards the genre should follow.
Sue Careless also criticized the mainstream media for unbalanced and politically biased coverage, for economic conflicts of interest, and for neglecting certain public causes. She said that alternative publications have advantages in independence, focus, and access, which make them more effective public-interest advocates than the mainstream media.
The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, was founded in 1910. It describes itself as inheriting the tradition of advocacy journalism from Freedom's Journal, , which began in 1827 as "the first African-American owned and operated newspaper published in the United States."
French newspapers Libération, Charlie Hebdo, Le Canard Enchaîné and L'Humanité all recuse what they consider pseudo-objective journalism for a purposeful explicited political stance on events. They oppose Le Monde neutral style, which doesn't impede it, according to those critics, from dissimulating various events or from abstaining to speak about certain subjects. On the other side, a newspaper like Le Figaro clearly assumes its conservative stance and pool of readers.
Advocacy journalists may reject the principle of objectivity in their work for several different reasons.
Many believe that there is no such thing as objective reporting, that there will always be some form of implicit bias, whether political, personal, or metaphysical, whether intentional or subconscious. This is not necessarily a rejection of the existence of an objective reality, merely a statement about our inability to report on it in a value-free fashion. This may sound like a radical idea, but many mainstream journalists accept the philosophical idea that pure "objectivity" is impossible, but still seek to minimize bias in their work. Other journalistic standards, such as balance, and neutrality, may be used to describe a more practical kind of "objectivity".
"Alternative" critics often charge that the mainstream's media claims of being "bias free" are harmful because they paper over inevitable (often subconscious) biases. They also argue that media sources claiming to be free of bias often advance certain political ideas which are disguised in a so-called "objective" viewpoint. These critics contend that the mainstream media reinforce majority-held ideas, marginalizing dissent and retarding political and cultural discourse.
The proposed solution is to make biases explicit, with the intention of promoting transparency and self-awareness that better serves media consumers. Advocacy journalists often assume that their audiences will share their biases (especially in politically charged alternative media), or will at least be conscious of them while evaluating what are supposed to be well-researched and persuasive arguments.
Some who believe that objective (or balanced, neutral, etc.) reporting is possible, or that it is a laudable goal, do not find that striving for objectivity is always an appropriate goal, perhaps depending on the publication and the purpose at hand. For example, it might be argued that when attempting to expose a waste, corruption, or abuse, a neutral position would "get in the way" of the exposition, and a "bias" against this kind of criminal activity would be quite acceptable to the intended audience.
Many advocacy journalists claim that they can reject objectivity while holding on to the goals of fairness and accuracy, and claim that corporate journalists often lack both.
In some instances, advocacy journalism is the same as investigative journalism and muckraking, where these serve the public interest and the public's right to know. Investigative reports often focus on criminal or unethical activity, or aim to advance a generally accepted public interest, such as government accountability, alleviation of human suffering, etc. It might be argued that the journalist is assuming a point of view that public action is warranted to change the situation being described. The most famous example of this was Edward R. Murrow's 'See it Now' series of reports on Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Professional journalists and members of the public critical of the term assert that reporting without objectivity (termed "editorializing" or "sensationalizing") is bad journalism, and does not serve the public interest.
The term might also indicate a serious breach of journalistic canons and standards, such as rumor mongering, yellow journalism, sensationalism or other ethically flawed reportage — for example, the 2004 revelations created by a press leak in the Plame affair, where a leak was alleged to be used to help an office holder's political position. (However, a critic of that politician, publicly admitted to being the source of that leak, not the politician in question. )
Some fear the activity of "advocacy journalists" will be harmful to the reputation of the mainstream press as an objective, reliable source of information. Another concern is that undiscriminating readers will accept the facts and opinions advanced in advocacy pieces as if they were objective and representative, becoming unknowingly and perhaps dangerously misinformed as a result.
Advocacy journalists vary in their response to these criticisms. Some believe that mainstream and "alternative" outlets serve different purposes, and sometimes different audiences entirely, and that the difference is readily apparent to the public. Many believe that the mainstream press is not an objective and reliable source of information, and so doesn't deserve the reputation it seeks to maintain.