Ryan J. Thomas

20Advocacy Journalism

Abstract: This chapter reviews the under-studied genre of advocacy journalism. I begin by locating advocacy journalism spatially. To do this, I distinguish between what I call segmented and woven advocacy, a distinction born of the distinct role advocacy plays within different journalism systems. I then examine the producers of advocacy journalism, with a particular focus on the distinction between voices within journalism and voices outside of it. Simply put, who are the people doing the advocating? I then turn to an examination of what advocacy journalism does, working on the assumption that discourse is always in service of meaning (Richardson 2007). I identify four threads in the existing literature that situate advocacy journalism as: 1. Analysis and interpretation, something I refer to as “news plus”; 2. Critique and change agent; 3. Political intervention; and 4. Emblem of journalistic decline. I then briefly discuss the argument that the separation between fact and value is arbitrary before offering some concluding remarks and suggestions for future research.

Keywords: advocacy journalism, editorials, objectivity, opinion


Commentators. Columnists. Editorialists. Analysts. Interpretive journalists. Pundits. Talking heads. These terms, ranging from the descriptive to the somewhat pejorative, and sometimes invoking a relationship with a particular media platform, are united in shared reference to a cadre of journalists whose role is defined by the provision of opinion, analysis, and perspective. They are members of a broad church, with unsteady walls, that can be called advocacy journalism. This genre is distinguished from (so-called) objective reporting by a willingness to offer a point of view on events, moving from a purely informational to an explicitly persuasive mode of address. What is the relationship between the two genres? Where does the border between them lie? How does advocacy journalism coalesce as a genre in its own right? And how does all of this fit into broader category of journalism? This chapter explores these questions (though it does not promise any answers; at least not straightforward ones).

Defining journalism and identifying its boundaries is a deceptively difficult task fraught with cultural, political, legal, and technological implications (Black 2010; Carlson 2015; Hindman & Thomas 2014; Zelizer 2004, 2005). Within the field of journalism studies, our understanding of our object of study is hindered by a narrowness of focus that often conflates “journalism” with “hard news reporting”, as though the former is wholly constituted by the latter (Zelizer 2004). Moreover, there is growing recognition within journalism studies of the need to internationalize the scope of our scholarship and move away from essentializing notions of what journalism is, recognizing that journalism is a complex phenomenon that developed differently across time, place, and medium (Hanitzsch 2009; Salgado & Strömbäck 2012). This comparative, global turn is a helpful reminder that any rigorous attempt to understand journalism must grapple with deep “epistemological and ontological questions” involving “different journalistic styles, norms, and values in different countries, and as journalism has changed over time” (Salgado & Strömbäck 2012: 145). This makes it important to avoid hasty generalizations on the basis of geography, history, or technology, given the variegated nature of the practice across place, time, and medium.

This is to say, first, that journalism is geographically situated. Journalistic objectivity in the United States emerged as a result of a specific set of contingencies, and the hegemony it maintains as a key criterion of journalistic quality and legitimacy distinguishes it from much European journalism (Schudson 2001; Waisbord 2008). This makes the invocation of an “Anglo-American” press tradition (Chalaby 1998), for example, something of a misnomer when one considers the open partisanship of British newspapers, especially the tabloid press (Hampton 2008; Sparks 2006). Furthermore, if we look to the global South, there are many countries where it is “unthinkable that journalism is anything but advocacy journalism” (Waisbord 2008: 374, emphasis in original).

Journalism’s development is also historically situated. US press history is instructive here. We cannot truly conceive of advocacy as an unpalatable “other” given the longstanding presence of opinion and advocacy in journalism, the proffering of which was once the modus operandi of American journalism, where newspapers were organs of opinion rather than unbiased reportage (Schudson 1978, 2001). Over time, as objective reporting became a journalistic protonorm, opinion was compartmentalized into sections of the newspaper, indicating clear division between news and advocacy (Bro 2012; Schudson 1978). In newspapers at least, advocacy remains, albeit in segmented form.

Finally, journalism’s development is technologically situated. This is to say that even in particular nations at particular periods in time, different media adopt different norms. Thus, while US newspapers maintain a strict division between reporting and advocacy, cable news networks are dominated by advocacy (Project for Excellence in Journalism 2013) and the boundaries between reporting and advocacy on these networks are diffuse, to put it mildly (Peters 2010). By comparison, while British broadcasting is bound to impartiality by law, the norm has never acquired much purchase with British newspapers, where values like truthfulness, fair play, and independence are more prized (Hampton 2008), and for whom a regulatory mandate would almost certainly be unpalatable (Thomas & Finneman 2014).

Journalism studies ought to be “attentive to the full range of journalistic specialisms” (Franklin et al. 2005: 128), yet the preponderance of scholarship on hard news means we know comparatively little about domains of journalism that do not fit into this rubric (Zelizer 2004). Advocacy journalism has been chronically understudied, despite its present popularity, global prominence, and historical resonance (Duff 2008; Jacobs & Townsley 2011, 2014; Thomas & Hindman 2015). Though the genre is not wholly without scholarship, the work that has been done is tenuously connected with only limited analytical thread tying its sub-genres together. The absence of sustained inquiry into advocacy as a genre in its own right leaves significant gaps in our understanding of its dimensions. Empirically, it means there remains much to ascertain about the norms, values, routines, and role conceptions of journalists operating within this genre or of the genre’s discursive properties. Normatively, it means we lack yardsticks for evaluating journalistic performance and for determining whether or not journalists within this genre meet these demands imposed upon them.

Part of the problem is that there is no single, agreed upon definition of advocacy journalism or what it constitutes (Fisher 2016). While we would likely spend little time arguing about whether newspaper editorials fit the genre, we would probably spend quite a bit more time on whether or not “interpretive journalism” joins them (Salgado & Strömbäck 2012). Political talk shows like This Week would be a safe bet, less so comedy shows like The Daily Show. This is to say that if drawing the exterior boundaries of journalism is a difficult task, it is no less difficult in drawing its interior boundaries. For Fisher (2016), “advocacy is about pleading another’s cause or arguing in support of an idea, event, or a person” (p. 712) which indicates that this is a form of journalism where the objectivity norm does not apply. Yet this broad container encompasses a large swathe of journalistic output across time, place, and medium, and hinges also on whether we regard objectivity as possible, desirable, both, or neither. In effort to account for the diversity of the genre, it is important to begin with a definition that is broad and adaptable. I therefore proceed with a preliminary, working definition of advocacy journalism as journalism that takes a point of view.

It would be impossible to provide a comprehensive history of the genre that honors its rich history and global permutations. My goal here, then, is to review and draw together the disparate existing literature in order to sketch out some basic propositions about advocacy journalism that can help make sense of this under-studied yet integral journalistic genre and provide a springboard for future research. This analysis draws on empirical and normative scholarship on advocacy journalism, in addition to a number of journalistic accounts of the genre, the better to understand the contours of the field. As a caveat, and following other works on journalistic performance (see, e.g., Christians et al. 2009; Strömbäck 2005), my concern is for multifaceted journalism in a multifaceted democracy. The boundaries of advocacy and propaganda are ripe for exploration, but not here. Drawing in the vagaries of authoritarian regimes like, say, North Korea and Russia and their media agents would stretch the already elastic boundaries of this analysis too far.

The structure of this chapter is as follows. I begin by locating advocacy journalism spatially. To do this, I distinguish between what I call segmented and woven advocacy, a distinction born of the distinct role advocacy plays within different journalism systems. I then examine the producers of advocacy journalism, with a particular focus on the distinction between voices within journalism and voices outside of it. Simply put, who are the people doing the advocating? I then identify four ways of conceiving of advocacy journalism, based on a survey of the existing literature, which situates advocacy journalism as: 1. Analysis and interpretation, something I refer to as “news plus”; 2. Critique and change agent; 3. Political intervention; and 4. Emblem of journalistic decline. I then briefly discuss the argument that the separation between fact and value is arbitrary before offering some concluding remarks and suggestions for future research.

2Locating the subject: segmented and woven advocacy

Recognizing that journalism emerges as a result of manifold external forces that shape its output over time (Bro 2012), it is important to distinguish between segmented and woven advocacy. By segmented advocacy, I refer to contexts where the delivery of opinion and advocacy is literally compartmentalized away from objective reporting and designated its own section, a process that symbolically represents its separation from objective reporting. Depending on one’s normative conceptions of journalism, perhaps, this may be seen as the marginalization of advocacy as a distinct and perhaps less “pure” form of journalism (Waisbord 2008).

A classic example of segmented advocacy is the opinion section of newspapers in the United States, which demarcates advocacy as something unique and distinct from the rest of the artifact (Bro 2012). This was not always so. The journalism of the colonial period and early republic was driven by advocacy; the newspaper was, functionally, an editorial with advertising and there was little to no variation of journalistic roles within newspaper operations (Alterman 1999; Schudson 1978, 2001). The shift to objective reporting as the 19th century gave way to the 20th was in part due to the embrace of scientific detachment and the separation of fact from value among “an aspiring occupational group at a moment when science was god, efficiency was cherished, and increasingly prominent elites judged partisanship a vestige of the tribal 19th century” (Schudson 2001: 162). The objectivity norm imagines the journalist of being capable of being “a neutral and detached recorder of ‘reality’ producing a fact-based, reliable account of events for the reader” (McQuail 2013: 210). Though a mythology was soon constructed around objectivity as eternal and unproblematic (Vos 2012), the shift toward objectivity was described by Carey (1965) as journalism’s “conversion downwards”, transforming journalists from “independent interpreters of events” to “brokers in symbols” (p. 137). Advocacy remained in newspapers, of course, but was downsized and compartmentalized into specific sections of the newspaper, symbolically and literally separated from the sections reporting the news (Bro 2012). Segmentation, somewhat confusingly, suggests that strict separation of facts and values are possible (or desirable) in one section of the newspaper but not possible (or undesirable) in another.

By contrast, woven advocacy refers to contexts where advocacy comprises the identity of the journalistic artifact such that it requires no segmentation and does not derive its meaning from comparison to an external referent. Unlike segmented advocacy, woven advocacy suggests that the strict separation of facts is either impossible or undesirable. Moreover, advocacy is part of its essence such that to raise questions of objectivity would be nonsensical, at least from within its own terms of reference. In some Latin American countries, for example, advocacy has long been regarded as at the core of journalistic activity (Waisbord 2008, 2013). There, what Waisbord (2013) describes as “populist journalism” rejects the idea of “nonideological” news and dismisses the professional journalism of the liberal ideal as an ideological construction. Advocacy, then, is woven into the fabric of journalistic identity.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that woven advocacy refers solely to the level of the nation-state. The United Kingdom is instructive here, for while one medium (broadcasting) is objective by mandate and convention, another (newspapers) is anything but. The British press is “habitually partisan” in news content (Sparks 2006: 121), with opinion woven throughout the newspaper rather than segmented into designated sections. The British tabloid press is notable for its longstanding hostility to the Labour Party (Franklin 2004; Greenslade 2003). An infamous example of this occurred on the day of the 1992 general election, when The Sun ran a picture of Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s face inside a lightbulb on its front page, accompanied by the headline “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. This had followed a sustained period of vilification of the Labour leader, a process repeated for subsequent leaders (Gaber 2014). The tabloids’ penchant for nationalism is also one of their defining characteristics (Conboy 2006), as notoriously demonstrated by The Sun’s front page headline following the sinking of the Argentine vessel the Belgrano during the Falklands War, killing 368 men, which read: “GOTCHA. Our lads sink gunboat and hole cruiser”. It is clear that advocacy for political party or homeland is part of the fabric of British tabloid newspapers.

Finally, woven advocacy can refer to a genre within a medium. For example, while US broadcast news adheres to the objectivity norm, with very limited overt editorializing,35 there are formats on US broadcast stations where advocacy is normalized. Political talk shows or “Sunday morning talk shows” such as NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation, and ABC’s This Week feature roundtable discussions among “a tiny group of highly visible political pontificators who make their living offering ‘inside political opinion and forecasts’ in the elite national media” (Alterman 1999: 4). While these programs can (and do) feature one-on-one interviews between a journalist and a leading political figure, much of the genre is built around the sharing of opinion and prognostication. A version of this that eliminated the one-on-one interviews altogether and is structured solely around panel discussion was PBS’s The McLaughlin Group, whose “panelists had political agendas and argued their positions as if they were the only plausible solution to the given problem” (Letukas 2014: 26–27).

The core distinction between segmented and woven advocacy lies in advocacy’s relationship with objectivity.36 Where advocacy is segmented, it assumes a subordinate status to a conception of reporting grounded in the ability to provide truth through a process approximating the scientific method. Where advocacy is woven, it is part of the essence of the journalistic artifact and is central to its meaning. However, this distinction is far from immutable. The historical development of newspapers in the United States is an indication that a medium within a nation can move from one to the other. Vos (2013) has called for greater attention to how we explain journalistic change, given that change emerges through the convergence of particular historical contingencies. Historical studies might respond to this call by exploring the contingencies that have situated advocacy journalism in different nations, different media within nations, and different genres within media within nations.

3Who are the advocates? Advocacy from inside and outside journalism

One of the purposes of journalism in a democracy is to provide a forum for the dissemination of diverse viewpoints, expanding the number and range of voices in the public sphere, in order to stimulate conversation and debate about issues of public concern (Christians et al. 2009). This necessitates examination of those voices, with particular reference to whether those voices come from inside or outside journalism. Who is doing the advocating?

The newspaper editorial column is a space where the newspaper as an organization communicates its views to its readership. Though the column may be written by any number of individuals on the newspaper’s editorial staff, the unsigned column functions “as close as is possible to being an institutional voice of [the] newspaper” (Hindman 2003: 671). Editorials have accordingly been described as a “barometer of a newspaper’s position on political and social questions” and “the heart, soul, and conscience of the newspaper” (Santo 1994: 94).

Opinion columns, meanwhile, constitute the voices of the individual journalists who work for it or whose work appears through syndication. In the United States, for example, while larger newspapers often have a pool of “star” columnists, smaller newspapers generally lack the funds to afford salaried opinion writers and thus rely on a pool of syndicated columnists as a cost-effective way to “present different points of view on increasingly complicated issues”, signaling a commitment to viewpoint diversity (Atwood 2014: 360). The downside of this is that is discourages the development of local talent addressing local issues (Stonecipher 1979).

The opinion section of newspapers in the United States is frequently referred to as the op-ed (“opposite-editorial”) section. The New York Times was a pioneer here, introducing its op-ed section in 1970 (Socolow 2010). The section was a concerted effort to broaden the range of perspectives, issues, and voices in the newspaper. Their intent, as signaled in the first op-ed, was “providing greater opportunity for exploration of issues and presentation of new insights and new ideas by writers and thinkers who have no institutional connection” (quoted in Ciofalo & Traverso 1994: 53). To counteract the predominantly liberal viewpoints on the editorial section, the newspaper hired conservative columnist William Safire (Rosenfeld 2000), while the newspaper made a concerted effort to feature academics, diplomats, poets, playwrights, policymakers, and members of the public to create an op-ed section bustling with ideas and contrasting viewpoints (Socolow 2010). Their model was replicated at the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times and forged the template for the modern opinion section in US newspapers (Socolow 2010; Stonecipher 1979).

Today’s Times op-ed section features columns from regular contributors such as Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and Maureen Dowd, who operate with some degree of editorial freedom, in addition to contributions from outside experts drawn from academia, government, campaign organizations, and industry, with knowledge of a particular subject or area (Golan & Wanta 2004). This division between regular columnists and guest contributors is the norm at elite US newspapers (Golan & Wanta 2004). For Rosenfeld (2000), “good op-ed pages now provide an entry into the debate for experts, dissenters, and survivors of earlier battles” (p. 7).

Drawing perspectives from outside journalism is the norm in other countries’ newspapers. The opinion sections of Danish newspapers are based on outside expertise, drawing on doctors, scientists, and engineers (Wahl-Jorgensen 2004). In the United Kingdom, while newspapers will have a staff of columnists from within journalism – many of them former reporters (Duff 2008) – they also have regular columns by non-journalists. The comedian Mark Steel writes a regular column for The Independent, while reality television star Katie Hopkins, famous for starring in the British version of The Apprentice, writes for The Sun. Elsewhere, radical and alternative journalism emphasizes the necessity of soliciting a broad range of voices in order to emphasize the intersectionality of different perspectives relative to the power structure (Downing 1984), while Waisbord (2008) writes of “civic advocacy journalism”, defined as “advocacy efforts by civic groups [outside journalism] that promote social change … driven by the notion that the news media should be a tool of social change” (p. 375).

Normatively, the aggregate function of the opinion section of newspapers is to provide readers with a broad range of viewpoints and ideas to enhance their ability to make informed opinions and decisions (Ciofalo & Traverso 1994; Rosenfeld 2000; Socolow 2010). It serves as “an intellectual watering hole … to accommodate a range of voices and interests that are allowed to speak richly and substantively” (Wahl-Jorgensen 1999: 34). Of course, the normative ideal may not necessarily be empirical reality. The opinion sections of US elite newspapers have been found to be dominated by elites, undermining the mission of the op-ed section as originally constituted (Day & Golan 2005). These pages can also serve as a public relations exercise by political elites “to articulate their governments’ position on salient issues to both domestic and foreign publics” (Golan 2013: 362).

Though not the work of journalists per se, letters to the editor have traditionally signaled a willingness within the organization to provide a forum for public participation and deliberation (Bromley 1998; Richardson & Franklin 2004; Wahl-Jorgensen 2001, 2002). Ideally, letters to the editor “allow for members of the public to introduce topics, and open them up to the critical scrutiny of public debate” (Wahl-Jorgensen 2002: 72). That debate is mediated by journalists applying selection criteria as to which letters run in the newspaper and which do not, editing for space and balance, and spatially arranging the letters on the printed page; the resulting debate is thus a journalistic construction (Bromley 1998; Richardson & Franklin 2004; Wahl-Jorgensen 2002). Furthermore, research has pointed to the cooption of British letters pages by political parties and their activists, squeezing the public out (Richardson & Franklin 2004). The spirit behind letters to the editor continues with a broader range of means for the public to share their views, such as polls and discussion boards, but the most common is the ability to comment on articles online and interact with the journalist and other readers. The vogue of participatory journalism suggests that these are meaningful spaces where extra-media voices can be heard (Reich 2011) though questions have been raised about the efficacy of these platforms in creating the conditions for public deliberation (Richardson & Stanyer 2011).

4Ways of thinking about advocacy journalism

Journalistic discourse is always active; it is always in the process of communicating something to some end (Richardson 2007). Bluntly distinguishing advocacy from reporting as the distinction between persuasion and information is inadequate as it glosses over the heterogeneity of either genre (Fisher 2016; Wahl-Jorgensen 2008) and is particularly inapt at a time when generic lines are increasingly blurred (Jacobs & Townsley 2011). This means we ought to look at the discursive properties of advocacy journalism – put plainly, its content – to ascertain what advocacy journalism does and what it is for. From an analytical perspective, this is addressing the relationship between text and function. The literature indicates that we can conceive of advocacy journalism in a number of ways.

4.1Advocacy journalism as “news plus”: analysis and interpretation

Advocacy journalism is often discussed in terms of its capacity for going beyond traditional reporting to aid the reader in understanding the broader context surrounding a given issue. We could call this kind of advocacy “news plus”. For Hulteng (1973), the goal of the genre is to “explain the significance of the glut of events”, a process of “sorting out issues at stake” (p. 11). Stonecipher (1979) describes its function as making “the news more understandable” and bringing “the news into focus, to put it into a better frame of reference to show its significance” (p. 54). It is often defined as journalism that emphasizes the “Why” from the classic journalistic “5 W’s” (Barnhurst & Mutz 1997; Salgado & Strömbäck 2012). For former CBS and PBS correspondent Bill Moyers, the commentator states their perspective “not because you’re trying to tell people what to think, but because you hope the viewer will find a new way of framing his thoughts about a particular subject” (quoted in Hirsch 1991: 191).

A qualitative study of British newspaper columnists by Duff (2008) found that while columnists defined themselves as journalists, they saw their role as using fact and evidence to make an informed, persuasive analysis. Many of these columnists stressed their backgrounds as reporters and saw fact and evidence as the bedrock of their activity. However, their purpose was not the dissemination of new information but a reasoned analysis of existing information. The veteran British journalist Andrew Marr (2004) echoes this sentiment: “Facts are the essence of a column, the fiber that makes the thing more than a dribble of opinion” (p. 370).

McNair (2008) distinguishes between “the reporting of events” and “making sense of them”, the second function of which is the preserve of the opinion section (p. 106). In plain terms: “Where the reporter says ‘this is what happened,’ the columnist says, ‘here is the news, as reported elsewhere. This is what I think about it’” (McNair 2008: 115). This delineation of duty marks advocacy journalists in segmented systems as fulfilling a niche function: “Reporters, from time to time, have opportunities to write interpretive articles that attempt to put news into perspective, but only editorial writers spend their entire working days trying to understand what’s happening in the world” (Rystrom 2004: 53). This view imagines advocacy journalists as “essential translators, enlightening an uninitiated public” (Bengtsson 2015: 5) and of advocacy journalism as a clearinghouse mediating between the citizen and society and helping audiences comprehend the complexities of the age.

The historical touchstone here is Walter Lippmann, whose vision was that journalism was “not just facts and bulletins, [that] journalism must explain things, journalism must embrace ideas” (Halberstam 1979: 370). Lippmann is a frequently-summoned reference point for the notion of columnist-as-expert, having cultivated a more explanatory style to counter the limitations of the objective method to explain the complexities of the age (see, e.g., Alterman 1999; Atwood 2014; Bro 2012; Duff 2013; Jacobs & Townsley 2011; Nimmo & Combs 1992; Rivers 1967; Stonecipher 1979). Lippmann himself made a distinction between the function of news, which is “to signal an event”, and the function of truth, which is “to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act” (Lippmann 1922: 358). Lippmann recognized the need for “expert analysts who could help point citizens to a deeper understanding of what was really important” (Jacobs & Townsley 2011: 24). From this perspective, the analysis and interpretation of news is the transfer of knowledge or “deeper understanding” from sender to receiver, which presumes an existing well of knowledge on the part of the sender. Writing about newspaper columnists, McNair (2008) writes that their cultural authority stems from their “reputation for knowing and understanding things” that audiences “do not, but should” (p. 107), with the aim of a column being to “persuade the reader that this particular commentator is someone whose views have weight and validity beyond those of the ordinary reader, someone whose views should be trusted” (p. 114). Here, the journalist is cast as a Platonic philosopher-king enlightening audiences on matters in which they have expertise (Bro 2012). A clear subset of this function is the use of specific expertise from outside journalism to communicate some insider knowledge to audiences. The column that Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman writes for the New York Times is a case-in-point, providing audiences with insight to better understand economic issues. Krugman’s column, though, does not cast him as an innocent teacher but as an actor in the game: as a Keynesian economist, he has a particular set of policy objectives and prescriptions and seeks to influence his audience that this is the “correct” framework to respond to the challenges of modern political economy.

Political magazines also fulfill the analytical and interpretive function. Such US magazines as The New Republic, The Nation, The Atlantic, and National Review emerged in part as a response to the conversion of newspapers to the informational model, recognizing the need for a more interpretive journalism (Jacobs & Townsley 2011). Alterman (1999), for example, describes the New Republic as “the only regularly read Washington-based magazine in which ideas and policy problems could be fleshed out to a degree that even remotely reflected their contextual complexity, allowing for possible objections and meeting them with fully reasoned responses” (p. 179).

Interpretive journalism is often discussed as a distinct genre within journalism and its place relative to advocacy and reporting is unclear. Rivers (1967) dates interpretive journalism in the United States to the New Deal era, with the strictures of “straight reporting” being unable to encapsulate the fissures of the age. Influenced by foreign correspondents and opinion columnists, some journalists “began to emphasize why events occurred and what they meant” (p. 42, emphasis in original). This was controversial at the time, as many journalists felt it strayed too far from the rubric of objective reporting, though its defenders sought to create clear dividing lines between explanation (or “news analysis”) and advocacy (Rivers 1967). Likewise, Benson and Hallin (2007) distinguish between interpretation and opinion, with the former “a kind of empirical discourse” that “goes beyond current facts, setting, or historical context to speculate on such things as significance, outcomes, and motives”. On the other hand, opinion refers to the “exercise of judgment, either normative (what is good or bad) or empirical (what is true or false)” (p. 32). Similarly, Salgado and Strömbäck (2012) define interpretive journalism as a distinct genre “characterized by a prominent journalistic voice; and by journalistic explanations, evaluations, contextualizations, or speculations going beyond verifiable facts or statements by sources” (p. 154). Such journalism “may, but does not have to, also be characterized by a theme chosen by the journalist, use of valueladen terms, or overt commentary” (p. 154, emphasis added). Interpretive journalism, for these scholars, ought to be understood as a separate category to advocacy journalism given that it can function independent of position-taking.

However, this is deeply uncertain terrain. Djerf-Pierre and Weibull (2008), for example, define interpretive journalism as “characterized by four entwined features: critical expertise, speculation, advocacy, and metajournalism” (p. 209). This model, in contrast to those above, subsumes advocacy as a constituent element of interpretive journalism, which is the parent category. The general lack of clarity over this role was illustrated in Thomas and Hindman’s (2015) study of journalistic discourse in response to National Public Radio’s decision to terminate the contract of analyst Juan Williams following controversial comments he made on Fox News, where he was also a commentator, about Muslims. NPR’s Vivian Schiller, explaining her decision to fire Williams, talked of how “news analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities”, which precluded taking “personal public positions on controversial issues” as this would “undermine their credibility as analysts” (quoted in Thomas & Hindman 2015: 473–474). Schiller further pointed out that Williams was “a news analyst; he is not a commentator and he is not a columnist … We have relied on him over the years to give us perspective on the news, not to talk about his opinions” (p. 480). What are perspectives, though, but opinions? The distinction between these roles that seemed so clear to Schiller was not mirrored in journalistic discourse, as journalists covering and commenting on NPR’s decision expressed confusion over the role of analyst and therefore how role-related responsibilities could be ascribed. For Poynter News Institute’s Kelly McBride, “the distinctions between reporter, analyst, commentator, columnist, are all very confusing for the public, and even confusing within newsrooms” (quoted in Thomas & Hindman 2015: 474). The confusion in the journalistic discourse led Thomas and Hindman (2015) to conclude that “the terrain between analysis and opinion” is “a journalistic gray area demonstrably lacking in definitional fixity” (p. 480).

4.2Advocacy journalism as critique and change agent

Understanding advocacy journalism as a form of critique and an agent of change goes beyond a “truth behind the facts” analysis of issues and events to stake out a particular point of view, directing its ire toward individuals and institutions that are, from the journalists’ perspective, doing ill. In doing so, it casts itself as the spokesperson of those who do not have a voice or who are perceived to be disadvantaged relative to systems of power, and seeks to redress these power imbalances (Janowitz 1975). Hindman (1998) writes of how the alternative press saw its role as “the instigation of political and cultural change”, making the advocacy of change central to its reporting (p. 179). The “muckraking” genre of journalism was notable for advocating for issues such as workers’ rights and women’s suffrage, criticizing corruption in business and politics, and mobilizing people to achieve social change (Serrin & Serrin 2002; Waisbord 2008).

British newspapers are notable for championing particular causes and devoting significant space in their pages to them. “When a newspaper campaigns,” writes Harrison (2008), “it is obvious: the cause is clearly and stridently announced, the newspaper seeks to actively elicit support, devotes prominent positions in the paper to its advocacy and opts for a didactic tone” (p. 44). The Daily Mail ran a lengthy campaign demanding charges be brought against the murderers of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence (Cottle 2004), going as far as identifying the perpetrators on its front page by name and image, with the headline “MURDERERS: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us”. Harrison (2008) uses the News of the World’s campaign to allow public access to the sex offenders register as an example of the unfortunate consequences of this kind of zealous campaigning, as many innocent individuals were victims of vigilante attacks as a result.

Comedy shows such as The Daily Show, while arguably existing at journalism’s margins, nonetheless provide a searing critique of political corruption and ineptitude (Feldman 2007). Political cartoons – “editorials in pictures” (Seymour-Ure 2003: 230) – are an under-studied medium that encapsulate the ideal of advocacy as critique, and surveys of cartoonists report that their primary self-perception is as a critic, with one cartoonist describing his role as conveying an “opinion forcefully, graphically, and unapologetically” (quoted in Rystrom 2004: 294). Indeed, it is political cartoonists’ capacity for critique that makes them feared by politicians and public figures (Danjoux 2007; Hulteng 1973; Seymour-Ure 2008).

Whatever the medium, the critique and change agent function of advocacy journalism seeks to alert the audience to wrongdoing and, possibly, offer a corrective. This is, in many ways, congruent with the ethos that positions investigative journalists as “custodians of conscience” (Ettema & Glasser 1998) insomuch as it directs the public’s attention toward problems in society, the people behind them, and the possible solutions to it. It casts journalists in a prosecutorial role, demanding that “something must be done” about a particular societal ailment.

4.3Advocacy journalism as political intervention

James Carey (1997) observed that “journalism only makes sense in relation to the public and public life” (p. 4). We would probably take it as a given that journalism is addressed to the public, though we would be mistaken to assume that the public constitutes the entirety of its target audience. Indeed, the addition of public life is a reminder that journalism is an institution among institutions and how it conducts its affairs (and develops over time) can only be understood relative to other institutions that influence it, and that it seeks to exert influence over (Vos 2013). How journalism functions – or, rather, how it ought to function – is therefore a political question, as it concerns how journalism responds to other institutions and how those institutions respond to journalism. Any effort at understanding journalism must reconcile with the politics of journalism as an institution vying for influence (Glasser 2000). This means we cannot simply read advocacy journalism as an innocent analysis of events or the pursuit of social justice on behalf of readers. Rather, we must recognize that journalism has “skin in the game”, so to speak, and has a vested interest in driving public discourse and public policy toward specific ends. Advocacy journalism, then, is a political intervention, as institutions and the individuals within them jockey for influence, advantage, and change.

While “the editorial page is essentially a dialogue between the paper and its reader” (Ciofalo & Traverso 1994: 52), it would be naïve to assume that readers are the only audience. Though journalism certainly speaks downward, in terms of its address to its audience, it also speaks upward, in terms of its address to elites, policymakers, and figures of influence. For example, when the New York Times’ conservative columnist David Brooks bemoans the state of the modern US Republican Party, he is surely making an intervention in debates about the direction of the party among Republican elites in addition to enriching his audience with his distinctive conservative voice.

In upward advocacy, the journalist is speaking to elites (presumably for the audience), addressing “influential news actors by evaluating their actions and by suggesting different solutions” (Gajevic 2016: 871). McNair (1995) describes editorials as “political interventions, and often read as such by a government or party” (p. 13). Advocacy journalism aims to “raise awareness, generate public debate, influence public opinion and key decision-makers, and promote policy and programmatic changes around specific issues” (Waisbord 2008: 371) and this necessitates attention to multiple audiences, the better to mobilize toward change.

Scholars have identified the phenomena of “op-ed diplomacy” (Gilboa 2005; Golan 2013) where newspaper columnists put pressure on government or attempt to sway international public opinion on matters of conflict resolution. Examples of this, identified by Gilboa (2005), include Ted Koppel bringing representatives of Israel and Palestine together on Nightline for a dialogue on reconciliation, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s plan for peace in the Middle East, and the Wall Street Journal Europe’s deputy opinion editor Michael Gonzalez writing a column urging European nations to support the United States of America in its war with Iraq. In these instances, journalists were not simply addressing audiences but engaging political elites. The potential agenda-setting capacity of elite advocacy journalism on other elites (Sommer & Maycroft 2008) makes this an area of particular concern.

Advocacy journalism is an exercise in discursive power, “establishing the dominant interpretive frameworks within which ongoing political events are made sense of” (McNair 2000: 30). For example, Thomas and Finneman’s (2014) analysis of British newspaper editorial comment on the Leveson Inquiry found broad-based hostility to the inquiry into their practices and ethics. The newspapers used strategies of exaggeration, minimization, self-affirmation, and localization to “structure public discussion around the legitimacy of the inquiry” (p. 174). These editorials cannot reasonably be read as solely analytical or even critical but as political, insomuch as they clearly signaled journalism’s willingness to defend its turf from encroachment by the state, and thus spoke powerfully of the rights (and, conversely, unaccountability) that British newspaper journalism was afforded.

4.4Advocacy journalism as emblem of journalistic decline

A theme running through much of the literature focusing on advocacy journalism in the context of US media is that the preponderance of advocacy journalism – particularly on the Internet and on cable news – is emblematic of journalism’s decline in standards. Advocacy journalism has been linked to greater public cynicism about politics and the prominence of “horse race” journalism preoccupied with process and personality at the expense of substance (Cappella & Jamieson 1997; Djerf-Pierre & Weibull 2008; Farnsworth & Lichter 2011; Hirsch 1991; Patterson 1993). Scholars have suggested that ideological media contributes to echo chambers and partisan division, as citizens limit the news and views they received to only those conforming to their existing political dispositions (Baum 2011; Jamieson and Cappella, 2008; Levendusky 2013). These views are mirrored by some of the journalistic accounts. Eleanor Clift, a regular panelist on The McLaughlin Group, described that same show as “the Super Bowl of bullshit” (quoted in Hirsch 1991: 64), while media reporter Howard Kurtz (1996) attributed the coarsening of public discourse to the dominance of advocacy journalism and criticized the genre for what he saw as its relentless negativity, depicting a country beset by problems. More recently, data journalist Nate Silver described “punditry” as “fundamentally useless” in its analytical and predictive capabilities (quoted in Byers 2012, para. 3).

However, perhaps instead of condemning a whole genre, we ought to look to other explanations for any perceived decline in journalistic quality. In an otherwise negative account of the emergence of media “talking heads”, Hirsch (1991) discusses how the political talk show format devolved from the high standards of Firing Line, which had the capacity for analytical, serious, and lengthy discussions on issues of import – to The McLaughlin Group’s “nasty, brutish, and short” partisan roundtable (p. 32). This indicates that it is not that the genre itself is of little journalistic utility but rather that wider structural forces both inside and outside of the media that could better account for the format’s devolution. The political-economic account of journalistic decline offered by McChesney (2003) argues partisan media ought not be critiqued simply because it is partisan but because of its quality and because of the limited range of views available. McChesney sees low-quality partisan media as a symptom of a larger problem grounded in the economics of news.

This is not to say that the scholarly account is wholly unfavorable. McNair (2000), for example, suggests that a move to a more interpretive, subjective style of journalism may be a necessary reaction to a political culture minded toward news management and spin. Advocating media pluralism in a “complex democracy,” Baker (2002) suggested “the press should be thoughtfully discursive, not merely factually informative” (p. 148). In a major work on opinion in journalism, Jacobs and Townsley (2011) discuss the potential role of the genre in fostering deliberation and mobilization in politics, while Schudson (2013) has argued that opinionated journalism ought to be defended on its merits on the grounds that pluralism is necessary in a media system.

5Advocacy as journalism, journalism as advocacy

Are advocacy and journalism two words for the same thing? Such a perspective might hold that the ideal of objectivity is an illusion and the positivist assumption that fact and value can be separated is a farce. From this perspective, all journalism is advocacy because all journalism is persuasive. This perspective is prevalent in critiques of “mainstream” or “professional” journalism by journalists in populist countries (Waisbord 2013) and journalists at radical and alternative outlets in general (Atton 2009; Hindman 1998). This perspective also acknowledges that journalism is a construction born of choices. Fisher (2016) writes that advocacy can “appear in more subtle ways as a by-product of the selective nature of journalism, which leads to some voices and issues being included, ignored or promoted more strongly than others” (p. 2). Journalists select certain topics to place on the public’s agenda over others (McCombs & Shaw 1972), select certain individuals as sources over others (Berkowitz 2009), and select certain ways of framing stories over others (Entman 1993). Is all journalism advocacy journalism?

6Conclusions and unanswered questions

In this chapter, I have tried to sketch out some preliminary propositions regarding advocacy journalism in an attempt to provide coherence to a disparate literature on an infrequently theorized realm. I do not claim that this discussion is historically or geographically definitive. Nor do I suggest that the range of sub-genres discussed here constitute the entirety of advocacy journalism. The goal is to sketch out some preliminaries rather than seal the genre’s boundaries in perpetuity.

Part of the challenge of understanding the boundaries around journalism is that the field is “an unstable referent, deployed differently by different actors” (Carlson 2015: 8). However, drawing boundary lines within it is an equally difficult task. This is fluid, contested, and uncertain terrain, and boundary-testing cases can be quickly located. When the newspaper columnist and panelist on ABC’s This Week George Will was criticized for coaching Ronald Reagan prior to a debate with President Jimmy Carter, he defended his conduct by explaining that he was a commentator, not a journalist. How do we make sense of this? Do we create a special category for George Will, or for whichever columnist comes along and seeks to defend what other journalists may find indefensible?37 If This Week or The McLaughlin Group are within journalism’s boundaries, do we extend that courtesy to The View, which also features discussion of issues of public concern? When the (now retired) veteran journalist Barbara Walters was the host, was her presence enough to elevate the show to journalistic status, in a manner that the presence of co-panelists Joy Behar or Whoopi Goldberg does not? What is the threshold for journalistic standing? These are not easy questions.

In their major work on the role of opinion in media, Jacobs and Townsley (2011) bemoan the lack of scholarship on “the different styles of opinion and news commentary, the different types of people who produce opinion and commentary, and the different relationships that opinion and commentary maintain with the worlds of fact and rational argument” (p. 10). This chapter has not resolved this absence but it has, hopefully, drawn together disparate strands of scholarship such that we may have greater capacity to do so. The problem advocacy journalism has faced, from a scholarly perspective, is that research done about it is infrequent and discrete, studied in terms of disaggregated elements rather than as a genre in its own right. However, its legitimacy as a genre in its own right is indeed unresolved; perhaps the big tent addressed here is simply too big and too disparate to possess generic coherence. This is certainly an issue for further reflection.

As for “the different types of people who produce opinion and commentary”, it would certainly be helpful to understand the socialization processes of advocacy journalists across a range of platforms and contexts, given the key role of newsroom socialization in other areas of journalism (Singer 2004). How are opinion writers socialized into their roles at news organizations where advocacy is segmented rather than woven? How do reporters who become columnists adapt to their new roles? What is the socialization process for organizations where woven advocacy is the norm? Perhaps equally important here may be the role of journalism education. What is the place of advocacy within journalism curricula, both historically and currently? A cursory, unscientific glance at the curricula of leading journalism programs in the United States indicates that opinion and advocacy is often relegated to an elective course or not offered at all. Is this as it should be?

Finally, what of the public? Within media ethics scholarship, advocacy journalism has been largely ignored. We ought to have more normative reflection on the informational needs of communities in a changing media environment. Empirically, research suggests that the trend toward opinion and advocacy in journalism may play a role in helping audiences make sense of events around them. Armstrong, McAdams, and Cain’s (2015) study of audience definitions of news found that audiences “may have come to expect – and even seek out – subjective, opinion-laded news to help them make sense of prominent, impactful, and controversial events and issues” (p. 95). There ought to be more research of this ilk, particularly as it meets the normative issue of the tension between audience wants and needs.

It should go without saying, but we should resist the tendency to eternalize journalism as though what is always was and always will be. This is particularly true for advocacy journalism, which within the United States too often derives its meaning from objectivity, symbolically relegating it to second-tier status. An uncritical and ahistorical rendering of objectivity as the crux of journalistic identity, the proffering of which journalists are frequently prone to (see, e.g., Vos 2012), strictures our thinking about journalism and may ultimately inhibit the field’s ability to be nimble to change. Traditions such as objectivity “are not an eternal law of journalism, much as they may sometimes seem to be” (Hindman 1998: 178). Processes of change are complex in nature (Vos 2013), and a more rounded account of advocacy journalism’s past and present may help us understand its future.

Further reading

The literature on advocacy journalism (and, more generally, the place of opinion within journalism) is disparate but there are some important touchstones. Some early work on the “opinion function” of the news media (see, e.g., Hulteng 1973; Stonecipher 1979) remains useful. More recently, Jacobs and Townsley (2011) have advanced the argument for addressing the “space of opinion” within modern journalism. Important work on the discursive dimensions of advocacy and opinion has been undertaken by Fisher (2016) and Gajevic (2016) which will undoubtedly inform future research. Waisbord’s (2008, 2013) work is an important reminder that in many contexts, advocacy journalism is the norm, advancing our understanding of its rhetorical features and normative aspirations in these contexts. Turning to specific sub-genres of advocacy journalism, the role of the opinion columnist and what they bring to journalism is discussed in Bro (2012), Duff (2008, 2013), and McNair (2008), while those interested in the distinct mission of the op-ed page as a journalistic genre should consult the work of Wahl-Jorgensen (2004, 2008). Seymour-Ure (2008) provides a comprehensive overview of political cartoons and the place of advocacy within them while Alterman’s (1999) work on the growth of the “punditocracy” in US cable news remains seminal. Finally, excellent summaries of the centrality of advocacy to the mission of alternative and radical journalism can be found in Atton (2009) and Downing (1984).


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