Monday Memo — How to Tell the Difference Between “News” and “Advocacy”

You may, like me, have become increasingly aware of stories in newspapers and journals, as well as on the radio and television, from supposed “objective” writers that are nothing more than editorial advocacy … and no where close to true journalism. Recently D. Joy Riley, MD, MA (Ethics) wrote and informative blog on the topic that I thought you might enjoy.

D. Joy Riley, MD, MA (Ethics)

It has been a familiar refrain for some time: the news has become less “news” than advocacy. Of late, there appears to be an uptick in the advocacy. Three recent articles yield prime examples.

  1. 1. On January 24, 2017, The Atlantic published an article entitled “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus is a Person,” which was later renamed “How Ultrasound Became Political.”

    The author, Moira Weigel who is a Yale “writer and doctoral candidate in comparative literature” according to her byline in The Atlantic, purports to discuss two “elementary questions: What is a fetal heartbeat? And why does it matter?” The editor’s notes at the conclusion of the article will suffice to elucidate at least some of the problems inherent in the piece:

    “This article originally stated that there is ‘no heart to speak of’ in a 6-week-old fetus. In fact, the heart has already begun to form by that point in a pregnancy. The article also originally stated that an expectant mother participating in a study decided to carry her pregnancy to term even after learning that the fetus was suffering from a genetic disorder, when in fact the fetus was only at high risk for a genetic disorder. The article originally stated, as well, that Bernard Nathanson headed the National Right-to-Life Committee and became a born-again Christian. Nathanson was active in, but did not head the committee, and was never a born-again Christian, but rather a Roman Catholic. The article originally stated that many doctors in 1985 claimed fetuses had no reflexive responses to medical instruments at 12 weeks. Finally, the article originally stated that John Kasich vetoed a bill from Indiana’s legislature, instead of Ohio’s legislature, after which the article was incorrectly amended to state that Mike Pence had vetoed the bill. We regret the errors.”

  2. On February 3, 2017, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published online first because of “public health importance” Chloe Ciccariello’s “Defunding Planned Parenthood – The Stakes for America’s Women.” The author states clearly in the article that her support for Planned Parenthood stems from her positive experience at a local Planned Parenthood affiliate when she was a 22-year-old university student. The journal dropped this advocacy piece into the inboxes of physicians as a stand-alone piece, and no competing view was presented. 
  3. Finally, on February 14, 2017, NBCNews published “Abortion Clinics Report Threats of Violence on the Rise,” by Mary Emily O’Hara. Again, an editor’s note is used to explain some of the discrepancies between accuracy and advocacy:

    “A previous version of this story reported that David Daleiden was indicted by a Texas court in connection to the Planned Parenthood videos. The charges were subsequently dismissed. Additionally, an early version described Newman as being a board member for the Center for Medical Progress. He is no longer listed as being associated with the group.”

    More of Mary Emily O’Hara’s advocacy can be found in her article “Why I Tweeted About My Abortion.”

The Preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethicsstates, “…public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

Accuracy and even-handedness are essential goals of reporting. Advocacy and reporting are not synonymous; neither are passion and compassion. Sloppy journalism, if it escapes into the printed word or cyberspace, should be dealt with immediately as needed by apology, retraction, correction and/or explanatory editorial notes. It is important to bring competence, a clear mind and compassion to our tasks, be they reading or writing. Otherwise, passion without competence is still incompetence, and compassion without clarity only produces jumbled writing and muddled thinking.

Reading the “news” has become more complicated, as news is “reported” by not only “reporters” but also “writers” and “advocates,” even if this last category is not usually labeled as such. It would be helpful if bylines included the biases of those writing. Given that unlikely future, we as readers need to become more media savvy. We need to understand both the old adage of, “If it bleeds, it leads,” as well as the concept of clickbait.

Let me know your thoughts.

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