Journal-activism: a new species or a dangerous hybrid?

The present article was produced during the European Youth Media Days which I attended on behalf of the Centre for European Initiative of Torino and Trepuntozero e firstly published on the Euronews website. It is part of a project developed during the 3 days of th workshop with other participants.

I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.

The civil society is fading from the public discourse. The warning cry does not come from independent environmental activists or experienced volunteers: The fading public voice is the enlightening title of recent (2013) Danish research recording the progressive disappearance of the voices of volunteers, activists and third sector workers from the mainstream public discourse and the most important media. Especially since the beginning of the economic crisis (2008), newspapers and news channels are mainly focusing on politics and economics, while other sections (culture and society, for instance) have been largely reduced. The phenomenon is not limited to Denmark – in Germany, journalists and politicians are often accused to be living in a space-ship] far away from their readers’ daily lives. Thus, this is just one side of the story: through new and social media, activists and NGOs can directly reach their audience, supporting and sometimes even replacing traditional media as information source.

“New and social media offer much more than some new communication tools, a website or a Facebook page”, confirms Ron Salaj, social media consultant at UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo and human rights activist.
“Take the ‘occupy movements’, for example: they used Twitter as a main means to spread the word and report real-time what is happening in the field, they used livestream channels to broadcast from the protests and tell a different perspective from TVs and newspapers. Occupy folks used blogs to tell in-depth stories from the field, photos to document and illustrate the stories, and podcasting to make the voice of the protesters heard and to amplify the message.”

If it reads a lot like journalistic work, the pun is actually intended. “Journalism and activism can be great enemies, especially since many journalists have agreed to serve the governments and leaving citizens on second hand” continues Mr Salaj. “But journalism and activism have also lot in common: brave journalists investigate big cases, raise sensitive community issues and document various concerns in the field. In Ukraine, for example, during the ‘orange revolution’ dozens of journalists have been imprisoned and murdered because of their stories. And these type of journalists are also activists.”

Many professional journalists would not agree about that. “That is not activism – rather, simply what a journalist should do”, says Alessia Cerantola, journalist working at IRPI, the Investigative Reporting Project Italy. Although IRPI does understand its role in the society as a tool for democracy (‘we work for public interest’ says the homepage to the project), they abide to the differentiation between their profession as journalists and the one of activists.

Smartphones, the Internet, the new media and the social networks are excellent means to help every citizen to run stories from the field, documenting cases and share them widely with audience through blogs and social networks. But is this journalism from below actually supporting or a substituting the traditional form?

Noresharski is probably one of the best examples of blurring between activism and journalism. The project was started during the protests in June this year caused by the appointment of Delyan Peevski as chief of the National Security Agency, and aims at ‘publish[ing] accurate and objective information’ on the protests. “I had the idea when we noticed that some facts happened during the protests were denied by the government and found therefore no space on the mainstream media. But I witnessed some of them and knew what really happened”, tells Nikolay Staykov, one of the founders of this information agency. As a trained journalist with several years of experience, Mr Staykov knows very well the information system – and its limits. “The problem with traditional media was the way of dealing with news. If the government was organising a ‘counter-protest’ to tackle ours, the media were just superficially reporting of ‘two protests’. It is like talking of a football match as of two teams playing, without saying who played better and who won!” When asked about bias, Mr Staykov smiles: “everyone has them. At least, we write it on our homepage – I think that false neutrality is much more dangerous”.

In any case, Noresharski still helps traditional media reach a wide public. But the trend of the last years sees a progressive loss of importance – and authority – on the side of traditional media. “Today”, adds Ron Salaj, “we do not need to rely on traditional media to receive any information, we can all rather become the source of information and very often even more reliable than traditional media.”

Reliability is probably the central issue at stake and everybody agrees on that. “When you give false information a couple of times, you are out of the game” adds the Bulgarian journalist. “It is true that fact-checking has become weaker in traditional media, thus social media has a weak point in it as well” points out Alessia Cerantola. “During the Fukushima disaster, for example, many tweets passed off as workers at the nuclear plant. It was false, but some media took the tweets and reported them.

The fading voice of the civil society, then, could be a problem limited to mainstream media, while finding its own place on other, new kinds of media. That will not mean the end of journalism – just its transformation.