CAMP 2015: Crossing Lines: How journalists can ethically be advocates

By Casey Hynes, 2015 JAWS Fellow

On the first day of journalism school or the first day in the newsroom, journalists learn that the cardinal rule of reporting is objectivity. Letting personal biases creep into the story is a credibility-destroying mistake. The Society for Professional Journalists is clear: Journalists should report stories, not become part of them.

Asra Normani speaks at the Conference and Mentoring Project (CAMP). (Photo by Casey Hynes)
Asra Nomani speaks at the Conference and Mentoring Project (CAMP). (Photo by Casey Hynes)

But Asra Nomani, author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam,” believes reporters can ethically promote causes. But they must maintain their journalistic values while doing it. Nomani led a CAMP breakout session on the issue, titled “Crossing Lines: How Journalists Can Ethically Be Advocates.”

Nomani became an advocacy journalist after her friend and colleague Daniel Pearl was beheaded by Islamic militants in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002. Pearl’s murder compelled Nomani to speak out against religious extremism and call for a reform of Islam. She feared becoming an advocate would cost her the respect of her Wall Street Journal colleagues at the time, but she forged ahead. They supported her decision, she said, likely because of her dedication to supporting her positions with hard facts.

Nomani called on the roughly 30 women in her session to revise sections of the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, updating it to reflect the aims of advocacy journalists. Participants broke into six teams to brainstorm a code that governs good reporting on behalf of a cause. They discussed sourcing, personal bias and avoiding false equivalencies. Nomani said she will continue to work with the group to develop the new code of ethics for advocacy journalism.

The first step, the audience agreed, is transparency about one’s biases. The second is to report the story as thoroughly as if it were a straight journalism piece. Several people, including Nomani, discussed the importance of disclosing one’s intentions to sources. This sometimes means telling them which of their quotes appear in the piece and how they’re used. Sources should understand the stance journalists are taking before an article runs – no matter how uncomfortable the conversation.

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Asra Nomani addresses advocacy and journalism at the Conference and Mentoring Project. (Photo by Casey Hynes)

Nomani said she seeks comment on reported opinion pieces, asking, “Do you have a comment?” even when confronting Saudi government officials on the state’s policies toward women or questioning controversial speakers on whether they intentionally sabotage conversations.

Several women asked whether journalists can come back to “straight” journalism after they’ve done advocacy writing, but the answer isn’t clear cut. Neither is the line between advocacy and objective reporting, and some women debated whether journalists such as Nicholas Kristof fall into the former category. Nomani said she could be objective if she were writing about something from which she was emotionally removed, but that there’s no going back on Islam and women’s issues.

“I have [only] so many decades left, if I’m lucky, and I want to see about this tidal change,” she said.

Many agreed that a deep understanding of one’s own pain and biases is key to ethical advocacy. Journalists must regularly assess how they approach their reporting, who they’re interviewing, and why they’re talking with certain sources. And they have to admit if they’re blinded by their own passions and veering into activism that doesn’t follow the ethics of journalism.

Nomani cautioned that when the insults come – and they will when someone takes a stance on an emotional issue – journalists must respond from a place of humanity.

As she put it, “Trying to elevate the human condition starts within ourselves.”