The case against: Can journalists be activists?

The activist-journalist tries to influence debate, whereas a journalist helps to create an informed discussion.

Deepak Adhikari
'A journalist is always answerable to his or her audience', writes Adhikari, pictured right [Deepak Adhikari]

Journalism requires assembling and verifying facts. Conveying fair and accurate accounts is the journalist’s job.

In today’s highly complex media environment with people increasingly turning to social media for news, the journalist’s basic responsibility has become all the more important. The new ecosystem has also presented a number of challenges to those in the business.

Rigorous fact-checking, collecting accurate information and publishing or broadcasting without bias are still equally important, but with the amount of data now being generated, news gathering has become a fraught enterprise.

An activist tries to influence the debate whereas a journalist helps create an informed debate.

I may sound Dickensian [“What I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life,” one of his characters says in the novel Hard Times], but fact is at the heart of reporting.

A journalist must provide a balanced account, regardless of their political, social or economic standing. But the very notion of activist-journalist poses threat to professional journalism.

Objectivity and impartiality are the pillars of journalism.

Activists interpret facts to suit his or her agenda.

The journalist’s job is to interpret, contextualise, and convey the nuances of a particular issue. He or she must not editorialise, which can lead to manipulation.

Creating an informed debate is at the heart of journalistic endeavour, whereas an activist’s aim is to influence the debate.

In reporting, journalists should allow as many voices as possible – at least two sources for a news story – so that everyone has a say on the subject. The voice of an activist should also be woven into the story.

But journalists should never privilege an activist’s view over the people in the story who are directly affected, whose voices are rarely heard in the mainstream media, which is largely based in cities and towns often far away from their subjects.

A professional journalist never shies away from rigorous fact-checking and practising a high degree of transparency in news gathering.

But by nature, an activist would be selective in his or her sources, materials and facts. This will present a distorted and partial snapshot of the issue.

An activist tries to influence the debate whereas a journalist helps create an informed debate.

Activist-journalists in Nepal

If a journalist who also wears the hat of an activist goes to cover a protest, he or she is either hated or loved. The activist-journalist will be loved by people whose agendas he or she highlights through the work, but will fail on an important aspect: trustworthiness by the audience.

Provoking one group of people against another or advocating for a certain cause can compromise the ability to win trust. A journalist is always answerable to his or her audience, but an activist is interested in supporting the agenda of a particular group. There is every possibility that an activist-journalist could do harm to journalism.

In Nepal, where I have been a journalist for over 15 years, first working at local magazines and newspapers and later, covering Nepal for international outlets, I have seen how the phenomenon of activist-journalists has led to the erosion of professional journalism.

In fact, there’s nothing surprising about this in Nepal, where until 1990, the press was driven by a mission to overthrow the autocratic Panchayat regime.

Nepalese students protest against Lokman Singh Karki becoming the chief of Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]Nepalese students protest against Lokman Singh Karki becoming the chief of Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]

Old habits die hard. So, even after the end of the era of what was then called “mission journalism”, the weekly tabloid and online platforms continue to promote one or other political party in Nepal.

While there are notable exceptions of press fulfilling its duty of making the powerful accountable, a new crop of activist-journalists have emerged in recent years.

When challenged about their unethical practices, they couch their defence in excuses such as: “I’m not a reporter, I am an op-ed writer” and “You can’t be objective when so much injustice is being done”.

This group supported the anti-corruption campaign of an orthopaedic surgeon-activist, who staged a series of hunger strikes in Autumn last year.

Hundreds of protesters coalesced around Dr Govinda KC, whose Gandhian dissent bolstered the battle against Lokman Singh Karki, the chief of an anti-corruption commission, who abused his authority ironically presiding over a body that was tasked with combating abuse of power.

But Karki’s downfall was a direct result of the country’s Supreme Court ruling, which dismissed him early this year on the grounds of lacking qualification for the post.

The activist-journalists marched the streets of Kathmandu carrying placards and shouting slogans. They urged me, and countless other journalists, to join their movement.

They expected the journalists like me to lend their voices to the campaign, which to me seemed a potential minefield for conflict of interest.

In an era of fake news, click-bait journalism and propaganda masquerading as reporting, the need for professional journalism has never been more urgent.

The closest I came to the rally was when I drove past the protest one Saturday afternoon in October last year.

Ultimately, it was a bunch of muckraking journalists, an intrepid lawyer and a fledgeling political party that helped topple the anti-corruption czar. It also helped that an impeachment motion against Karki was being deliberated at the country’s parliament.

I have always thought of journalism as a profession that conducts its business in the periphery, never aspiring to be at the centre of the news event.

A journalist watches [and is witness to the unfolding drama] from the sidelines, never wading into the murky waters, but always at a safe distance so that he or she can report the information, nuggets and insights to the public.

In an era of fake news, click-bait journalism and propaganda masquerading as reporting, the need for professional journalism has never been more urgent.

What we need is an independent journalist who is not driven by any agenda, but is a truth-seeker and a champion of core values of journalism.

In these difficult times, we need to go back to the basics of journalism and strive to deliver credible, evidence-based and engaging reporting.

While fellow journalists in the Western world have recently faced with the challenges of dealing with politicians for whom lying is a second nature, the fabulist-politicians here are legion.

Newspapers are often susceptible to their lies, often publishing their false statements verbatim. But a small non-profit has shown how such falsehood can be challenged. South Asia Check, a website supported by Panos South Asia, a non-profit based in Kathmandu, counters falsehood and debunks myths and misconceptions.

Perhaps such initiatives should be replicated across the world so that politicos who make outlandish and exaggerated statements do not get away with it.

And, of course, sticking to the time-tested, old principles of journalism that have endured over the years will go a long way in fighting so-called alternative facts.

Deepak Adhikari is a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu. He covers Nepal for international outlets. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.