Shoptalk: Why Journalists Should (At Least Sometimes) Be Activists

Recently, after a New York Times journalist publicly called the Obama administration the “greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation,” the paper’s editor for journalistic standards told Margaret Sullivan, the public editor: “In general, our reporters understand that they don’t and shouldn’t editorialize on issues we cover….I would put this in a different category.”

In other words, the Times was officially admitting that it was not neutral—wasn’t pretending to be neutral—on this topic. As an organization, it was taking an activist stance—a long way from its traditional role of observer and reporter.

All journalists need be activists, at least part of the time.

Even those journalists who worship at the altar of objectivity should recognize that on at least some issues, they cannot possibly be objective or neutral. Or at least, they should not be. On some issues we have to take stands, even though those stands may put us at policy odds with the people and institutions we cover.

The New York Times has picked one of those issues: freedom of the press. But freedom of the press is just one of the things we need to push for. We need to be advocates for freedom of expression in general, freedom to associate, freedom to collaborate, freedom to innovate. They’re not only at the core of whether we can do our journalism; they’re at the heart of liberty itself.

Rich and powerful people and entities—governments and companies in particular—are attacking these core values, usually in the name of protecting us or giving us more convenience. In the process, they’re creating choke points. They’re locking down our computing and communications, creating a system of control by others over what we say and do online.

That’s an attack on the Internet’s decentralized nature, where speech and innovation and collaboration would often start at the edges of this network of networks, where no one needed permission to do those things. Choke points mean we have to ask permission.

What are these choke points? Here are just a few:

Direct censorship. It’s growing in far too many parts of the world. We should be activists against it.

Surveillance. Governments are keeping track of what journalists and activists—and everyone else, not just suspected terrorists—are saying and doing. We should be activists against it.

Telecommunications companies. Big Telecom say it should have the right to decide what bits of information get to people’s devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get there at all. We should campaign for the rights of people at the edges of the network get to make those decisions, and for truly open and competitive networks.

Hollywood and its Copyright Cartel allies. The copyright system is grossly unbalanced in their favor, at serious cost to free expression. We should be activists for a fair intellectual property system.

We—you and I—have helped create some of the choke points , by choosing convenience over liberty in relying on centralized Internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Google. Of course these companies do provide useful services.

Feeding Facebook means feeding a company that wants to eat journalism, or at least pick the winners. If this was only a business issue I wouldn’t raise it. But it’s much more than that. This is about whether the terms of service, enforced by a few decision-makers at giant companies, will be the new rules of free speech. We should not let these giants be the new editors of the Internet. We should be activists for open systems and services, and against walled gardens that become traps

Journalists need campaign for freedom, and against choke points and control. The alternative is a future where others decide what we can say and do. That can’t be what we want, but it’s where we’re heading.

Dan Gillmor teaches digital media literacy at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He is author of two books on media issues and writes regularly for a number of publications. A full version of this article can be found at

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One thought on “Shoptalk: Why Journalists Should (At Least Sometimes) Be Activists

  • August 22, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    Spot on, Don. Edward R. Murrow is the most famous broadcast journalist activist, even though most journalists and scholars have failed to understand that part of his legacy. He was a tireless supporter of civil liberties, which, by the way, often got him into trouble. My new book, “The Lonely Activist,” provides more details, and explores in more depth why news organizations, universities and governmental institutions have failed to fully embrace and protect the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment. A free PDF copy of the book will be available to the public this fall at -David Demers, former journalist and professor of mass communication


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