Is Journalism a Form of Activism?

Brian Gongol

Is journalism "a form of activism"? That was the comment from a student editor from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that turned an interview on CNN into a debate about reporting.

If a journalist begins with a crusade in mind, they should expect to end up exhausted.

If a journalist begins with a relentless sense of curiosity, they can survive a long career.

No one is obliged to subsidize your mission.

But where a person's curiosity and storytelling ability intersect with the public good, powerful and useful things can be created.

You may come to find you have a lens into some part of experience that lends motivation and credibility to your storytelling.

You may come to feel an urgent call to advocate.

You may be driven by a mission to inform others broadly about lots of things.

There is room for all kinds of journalism -- straight news, opinion journalism, specialty reporting, even straight advocacy.

The common thread that makes something journalism -- as opposed to propaganda -- is not a sense of activism, but of obligation to ask questions.

Questions (and the freedom to ask them) unite opinion columnists of the left and right with classic shoeleather reporters with television sports anchors with everyone else who has legitimate claim to be called a journalist.

If the mission is curiosity and storytelling -- relating the new things you've learned, and striving to get the answers right -- then you're a net good for news and journalism.

If you're fixed in your identity and what you think you know, you're a net drag on everyone else.

Passion alone is certainly insufficient, and it might not even be necessary. But most journalists have something that animates their interest -- whether it's about an issue (like, for example, public education), a subject matter (like meteorology or business), or a place.

If that animated interest is what provokes them to ask good questions and to care enough to explain the answers they uncover, then that's journalism.