The difference between topical journalism and advocacy

Written by Michael on August 8th, 2011

Advocates give a shit. Journalists can’t afford to.

As the editor of a topical startup, I’m easily mistaken for an advocate on behalf of my audience. It’s true, there’s a strong resemblance: like an advocate, I start my day with the assumption that my audience deserves happiness and prosperity.

But this is the same assumption that starts the day for every media outlet in the world.

Here’s the difference between advocacy and journalism: Before doing anything, an advocate asks himself or herself: “What effect will this have?”

That’s the one question a journalist should almost never ask. There’s no quicker way to stifle an interesting or useful idea.


3 Comments so far ↓

  1. Michael says:

    The main exception to this last paragraph, as I was reminded yesterday, is when a journalist’s work would directly and unnecessarily harm an innocent bystander. But this doesn’t negate the larger principle.

  2. I don’t want to do journalism that has no effect on the world. I’d say it’s more that advocates ask “How this this advance my cause?”

    And, of course, there’s an entire world of advocacy journalism that plays by different rules.

  3. Michael says:

    I don’t want to do ineffectual journalism, either, Courtney. But I’d still argue that in any given situation, a journalist should not ask “what effect will this article have?” This is indeed one step further back than selecting a cause … and I think that’s appropriate.

    To pick an example, the two most successful American partisan journalistic projects of the 20th century, the National Review and New Republic, both built their names on journalism that (a) set out to effect the world, and (b) didn’t give a shit about the political outcome of any given article. This was the defining characteristic of both magazines: Each contrarian headline acted in service to the long-term goal of social transformation without much concern for the short-term outcomes. This made both publications fascinating.

    I hear about advocacy journalism, but I’m not sure what it is. When someone says that, I just hear “boring journalism.”

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