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I’m a journalist and an activist. Deal with it

by Cecile Riche-Simeon December 3, 2019
I’m a journalist and an activist. Deal with it

In September, the Global Climate Strike took the world by storm with approximately 7.6 million people marching for climate action.

According to its organizers, this was the biggest climate mobilization in history. People sent a clear message to their governments: they expect climate action, and they expect it now. With approximately 500,000 people striking in Montreal, this was the largest strike in the city’s history, said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante.

I was part of the march both as a journalist and an engaged citizen. I wonder if my objectivity could be discredited, since I personally share values with some climate activists and align myself with certain environmental movements.

Many journalists think it’s important to keep a distance from groups and movements, at the risk of losing credibility and thus the trust of readers. I’m aware that I have my own perspectives that impact the filter through which I view and describe events; and inevitably shades the, so to say, “truth.” However, I truly believe that being aware of these biases can only encourage me to be more objective and motivated to deliver the “truth.”

Objectivity is thought of as an absolute – journalists are either 100 per cent objective, or not at all. But in fact, journalists, like other human beings, are all subjective. They too, have their own interests, values, opinions and ideologies. I believe that, consciously or not, these values shape who they are, what they think and how they act as citizens as well as journalists. My personal interests are based on environmental and social issues and I believe in climate change and the need to act now. The planet is the number one subject I want to report on and I believe my interests and experiences in this field can add value to my journalism.

There is also this fantasy that journalists are independent and serve only the public. In theory, journalism is meant to deliver the truth and help the readers make their own opinion about the world, beyond the influence of any source of power, such as the government or private companies. I believe that in reality, even the most conscientious and cautious journalist can be influenced either by powerful sources or by various situations. For example, influences may come from the political views of the news organization the journalist works for.

Moreover, in my opinion, there are always two – if not more – sides to a story. The concept of “balance” can give you the impression that both sides should always be covered equally. But should they really? Journalists can sometimes give equal voice to people of unequal knowledge. For example, when covering stories linked to the constant debate on the existence of a climate urgency, journalists tend to grant equal importance to both scientists and global warming sceptics. Fearful of being seen as biased or discriminating certain opinions, they sometimes don’t help but confuse and mislead the public opinion.

Also, depending on deliberate choices concerning the materials used to depict an event or news, such as the composition of the pictures taken during a protest or the words used to describe the event, journalists can convey different sides of a story. They may do it unconsciously as they are sometimes just following news conventions, like publishing a picture showing the one violent demonstrator in a peaceful protest. It makes a more compelling photo than showing peaceful marchers, but I don’t think this depicts the actual event as it happened. I believe it is part of the journalists’ job to break barriers between people of different opinions and not only share what people do, but why they do it.

As part of my studies as well as my personal interests, I decided to join an environmental movement last July, to better understand activism and its link to journalism. Born in France, known for its revolutionary people, I had never joined any protest or any march before and had always thought protesters were very different from me. But the more I started attending protests, the more I realized how alike we were. This made me realize that there is a very powerful stereotype among the public opinion concerning activism. More and more, I could see that activism was often portrayed as violent, and activists as harmful troublemakers.

On the other hand, when I went to protests myself, I could see how peaceful they actually were and how cautious they had to be to fight against this misinterpretation commonly held in the public opinion that they’re the ones messing with the system. I believe journalists matter in this, since they have a certain influence on the public opinion.

Journalists decide what is news. Journalists are the ones to attach relative importance to news events. Readers interpret those events through the language that journalists choose to constitute their coverage. 

It’s obviously very difficult to leave my personal interests out of my work life, and I think that it’s a journalist’s responsibility to have integrity in their work. There will always be an inherent link between the authenticity of my work and my values, and it would be hypocritical to hide it. I strongly believe that if I acknowledge my personal interests, am conscious that I may have biased first reactions but am willing to try my best to deliver factual reports, I should not be considered any differently than other reporters, and I believe my knowledge of the ecological crisis can make me even better equipped to talk about such issues.

 

Photo by Britanny Clarke

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