Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Advocacy Journalism: Powerful Tool for Social Change


Historically, advocacy journalism has created massive, cultural changes in America in widely diverse, minority communities from Latinos is the barrios to the Black Panthers, to launching Gay Lib.

“Until the latter part of the 19th century, virtually all American journalism was advocacy journalism,” wrote Zenger’s Newsmagazine publisher and editor, Mark Gabrish Conlan in an e-mail.

He describes advocacy journalism “as reporting that combines factual information with a distinct, readily identifiable and honestly expressed point of view on the part of the writer, editor or publisher.

In the early days of American journalism, “Publishers almost invariably owned their own printing presses and made most of their income printing jobs for political parties, campaigns and candidates,” Conlan explained.

Advocacy journalism shakes things up, intentionally. But it insists on maintaining the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) highest ethical standards of journalism.

“The principal responsibilities of any journalist, including advocacy journalists, are honesty and accuracy,” Conlan also wrote. “If they assert a fact, it has to be true.

“During the 20th century, advocacy journalism survived in the U.S. mainly in specialty news-papers published by and for specific communities,” Conlan said.

Virtually all minority communities today, including Gays and the disabled, today have successful businesses in print, broadcast, on-line and in multi-media. They serve in the international Society of Professional Journalists, the CCNMA-Latino Journalists of California, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the National Association of Black Journalists.

Advocacy journalism is not the endless, distorted yet entertaining diatribes of Rush Limbaugh or the writings and Fox News commentaries of Sarah Palin.

Professional advocacy journalists today are typically credentialed members of the working press.

Creative writing styles can be involved. In the “Berkeley Barb” in the late 1960’s, in stories on the launch of Gay Lib three months before Stonewall in NYC, the reporter was a key community organizer. He would often quote himself in “Barb” stories to explain the issues in his stories more accurately, and used no by-line when writing in that style.

It’s all in a new book by Prof. Josh Sides, the Whitsett Professor of California History at Cal State - Northridge, entitled Erotic City. (See review in the December 2009 Zenger’s).

While many advocacy journalists today are on-line and work for well-funded Web sites, the fly-by-night bloggers and amateur tweeters are not included.

The Berkeley Barb in the late 1960’s and Zenger’s Newsmagazine today are prime examples of advocacy journalism.

Contact writer Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or This article was adapted from January 21, 2010 post on the international Web site of the Society of Professional Journalists [], where the reporter serves as a member of the SPJ’s National Committee on Diversity.