The issue of activists entering journalism and journalists becoming activists is one of those stories as old as time. The topic is always recurring and rarely goes by untouched or without sparking a discussion. I can’t even count the beers I had with fellows journalists obsessing over this issue.

One of the very first times I really considered the topic, and by that I mean thought about it, discussed it with peers, and read both sides of the argument was when The Guardian has published the secrets revealed by Edward J. Snowden, reported by Glenn Greenwald.

At the time, one of the more nuanced takes, as always, came from the late David Carr of The New York Times. Carr explored the differences and blending between activists and journalists, with Glenn Greenwald in the middle of the case.

Carr described Greenwald as an activist who is deeply suspicious of government, a zealous defender of privacy, but also a journalist. Greenwald told Carr it wasn’t about being an activist or a journalist, rather a matter of being honest or dishonest. In his mind, all activists aren’t journalists, but all real journalists are activists.

The legendary media columnist admitted journalists aren’t without political or ideological beliefs. Carr concludes, activists do reveal the truth, though their primary incentive is to win an argument.

But he also noted that activism can impair vision, lead to a certain narrative without following counter-narratives. Activists wage campaigns, almost like politicians.

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Is it activism when journalists openly root for Ukraine?

After Russia attacked Ukraine, now more than a month ago, I still remember very vividly what I was doing. I heard many friends and others all over Europe describe the same feeling. Like when 9/11 happened. A world-changing event that will be forever engraved into all of us.

I was supposed to start working early in the morning because I did not finish my workload the previous night. I couldn’t, I was glued to my computer reading national news outlets in Slovakia, BBC News, The New York Times and trying desperately to connect to CNN’s live coverage (wish CNN+ came two months earlier, would even pay full price from the get-go).

According to UNICEF data, more than half of Ukraine’s children have been displaced after one month of the war. 

When my wife woke up and I told her that a Russian invasion is happening, she was shaken. Millions of Ukrainian lives have been ruined and whole generations of Europeans who have only known peace could never go back to that feeling.

The first days of the war brought hope as the Ukrainian army managed to hold off Russian soldiers from taking big cities. It was around this time I started seeing some of my colleagues and other journalists all around Twitter use the phrase ‘Slava Ukraini’ (Glory to Ukraine).

The encouraging chant was used as a slogan by the Ukrainian military for years and now it became widespread.

Deutsche Welle has done a historic exploration of its roots, meaning, and who used it first. The phrase dates back to World War I when military units from the Ukrainian People’s Republic were fighting against Russia and later became a rallying cry for the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a nationalist militia led by Stepan Bandera.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ‘Glory to Ukraine’ was given a new life. Used by nationalists but later, especially after the events of 2014, the slogan became mainstream and according to some historians acquired a whole new meaning. Other historians argue that it’s a double standard. Yet, today you would hardly find evidence of its current link to modern fascism, and it is certainly not a hidden message.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an activist is a person who believes strongly in political or social change and takes part in activities such as public protests to try to make things happen.

Newsrooms have ethics guidelines, and many don’t encourage journalists to take part in protests. On the other hand, those guidelines compel them to tell readers the complete, unvarnished truth as best they can learn it (taken from the NYT’s Ethical Journalism handbook).

War in Ukraine doesn’t have two sides of the story journalists need to present in order to get to the bottom of the truth.

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In his article titled Where Does Journalism End and Activism Begin? for Nieman Reports, Michael Blanding, an investigative journalist and best-selling author, looked for the answer.

Blanding did a very good job of presenting different cases regarding the topic. From Indira Lakshmanan, senior executive editor at National Geographic Partners, who points to the view from nowhere tradition of privileged white male journalists, to professor Stephen Barnard who analyzed and compared the use of Twitter by journalists and activists in the same setting and found lines between the two groups.

In various cases, the lines between accuracy, advocacy and adversarial activism got blurred. Essentially, journalists strive to bring the whole truth.

In a 2021 Poynter Institute study, researchers sought to define the mindset of two groups:traditionalists who favor neutrality and more activist-minded journalists. The biggest disagreement centered on the use of social media and sharing political beliefs. Despite these and other differing opinions, both groups agreed journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth.

In 2019, many global news outlets (Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Telegraph, BBC, NYT) had changed the way they spell the name of Ukraine’s capital, adopting the Ukrainian-language derived “Kyiv” as their official spelling, replacing the Russian-rooted “Kiev.”

Last week, the Slovak Denník N decided to follow suit (a change from Kyjev to Kyjiv) citing the Russian-rooted spelling and also that Ukrainian refugees in the country kept asking them why are they still using the Russian version. The editor-in-chief called the decision political.

The announcement sparked some controversy with journalists from other outlets, with some throwing around the word activism. The next day, Denník N published an interview with a linguist who explained that the change could become a new linguistic rule in Slovak language if enough people start using it.

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When activism and journalism live side by side with lines blurring between them, audiences’ trust is more important than ever

So, is it activism when you see colleagues openly chanting a Ukrainian slogan, used nowadays commonly as a sign of support, despite its origins? Or is it activism when a newspaper makes a political stand as a sign of compassion?

I don’t think so. Circumstances matter and those have been changed on February 24th when Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

When I put a hat on my audience and try to think only as a consumer of news, it is helpful to me to know where the journalists covering the topics I read about are coming from.

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That’s why I love when a short bio is featured next to a journalist’s name or when I know what kind of political ideology the outlet supports or which politicians it has previously endorsed.

A 2020 poll order by the NY Times does not fully agree with my view, as more people felt they trust journalists more when they do not share their political and social views. This would be actually a good question for the Reuters Institute Digital News Report to have a view from Europe and elsewhere in the world, not just US-based data.

When I researched this topic, the idea that journalism is continuously evolving kept coming up repeatedly. Just a few weeks ago there was a debate about whether journalists should build their own brands and the overwhelming response was yes, especially the ones who are starting.

Again, the idea of self-branding or becoming an influencer journalist is something that could not even exist twenty years ago, as there were no social media to build a brand on for non-TV journalists.

Journalists want to have an impact and along the same lines don’t want to be considered advocates. But would you not advocate for a free press when politicians in your country were preparing to change a law?

Circumstances matter, journalism evolves. But one thing that remains is we should strive for the trust of our audiences, otherwise, they will end up trusting anyone and anything that they will be served.

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