The similarities between journalism and activism are obvious, but the differences are subtle. Practitioners in both fields sometimes occupy the grey area between, leaving observers puzzled as to the truthfulness and objectivity of their message.
When British parliamentarian Edmund Burke coined the term “the fourth estate” in 1787 to distinguish the press from the clergy, the nobility and the common people, he was in effect setting newspapers above the fray of political debate. Journalists then and now offered opinions on politics, of course, but their central work was – and is – in presenting the raw facts by which others might form their own opinions. Journalism has evolved with time and technology, its reach and its ability to sway public opinion multiplying along with literacy and global access. The temptation to abuse such power is unchanged. Who would refuse the chance to convey their opinion to the largest possible audience in the hope of having a significant impact on current affairs?
Journalists and activists are similar, sometimes identical, in that they can serve as a balance weight to the power of government when it becomes arbitrary or unjust. They gather and analyse information and formulate opinions on important matters. Given the breadth of their audience, journalists must share these opinions judiciously, in the form of commentaries that are carefully labelled as such.
Yearning for an audience of any significant size, activists heed no such restriction. But the key difference between these two groups has to do with reach and impact. Journalists primarily want the “truth” as they perceive it to emerge, and what happens next is of less concern to them. Activists want the “truth” to be known and, crucially, bring about change. A journalist might gather information about the abortion issue and then say to the public, “Here’s what I found out and here’s what I think.” That reporter could be pro-abortion or anti-abortion, but the cup is never quite full, given that the pros and cons of abortion continue to develop and no one can claim to know everything there is to know. An activist will insist on black or white, either pro- or anti-abortion. There is no room for further debate or thoughtful reconsideration of the facts.
Much as some activists confuse what they are doing as a form of journalism – alerting the public to accumulated facts – there are journalists who cross the professional barrier into the realm of subjectivity, in a bid to effect changes they deem necessary. Between the similarities and subtle differences of these disparate callings lies the muddling grey area.
Some journalists even think that an activist stance makes them better reporters. That might be true in cases where the black and the white are clearly distinguished, as with the issue of forced prostitution, for example. Otherwise they are doomed to spend their days fending off accusations of bias from those whose opinions they have devalued. Like anyone else, all reporters have political opinions, and their newspapers and broadcasts often become the propaganda tools of political rivals. Journalism is a career strewn with moral and ethical hazards. What matters is what journalists do within these circumstances.
Thai politics hovers among several layers of truth, and that alone should be enough to suppress any journalist’s urge to become overtly politically active. Insulting the opinions of others takes this unethical practice to a whole new level. While it’s impossible to be strictly neutral in today’s polarised world, and although most journalists have an activist streak, professional dignity demands that they be fully cognisant of the subtle differences setting them apart from activists.