The Balancing Act Between Activism and Journalism

Fair and balanced: as news director at News 1130, Charmaine de Silva expects her reporters to be unbiased. Photo by Mathilda de Villiers.

Debate continues between journalists on whether you can produce a balanced story as an activist

By Nikitha Martins and Taesa Hodel 

A photo of hundreds of people marching down Davie Street cheering and waving pride flags is displayed at the head of Charmaine de Silva’s Twitter profile.

During de Silva’s time as assistant news director at CKNW, a position she held from 2014 to 2018, she had to formally notify her employers of her pending involvement with the Vancouver Pride Society.

Before Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, de Silva points out that it was more problematic for journalists to voice their opinions about LGBTQ+ rights. She says that only after policy has changed or the political climate on a subject has cooled, can journalists openly express their support.

De Silva’s current job as the news director at News 1130 consists of assigning stories, beats and projects. She expects her reporters to produce fair and balanced work, regardless of their personal biases.

“When people are sharing political views of the government of the day, the opposition or the mayor, that, to me, would be a red flag. That moves beyond objective analysis of a situation,” de Silva says.

She notes that in the News 1130 newsroom, she is still surrounded by journalists who are, in a sense, advocating for certain issues, but don’t consider themselves activists.

“There are a lot of other issues where people do really amazing work that challenges norms and gets the public to think and create societal change. I don’t know that they would ever consider themselves an activist, nor would the public, but it is actually what they’re doing,” says de Silva.

The stories journalists tell can bring perspective to things like freedom of speech, accountability and inequality.

De Silva says that journalists who have passionately covered the opioid epidemic are, in a way, advocating for those affected: “You certainly see a point of view coming across in that work.”

Andrea Woo, a Vancouver-based reporter with The Globe and Mail, covered a court case where Pivot Legal Society challenged the federal government on regulations surrounding prescription heroin. Pivot won, and people with severe addiction can now access prescription heroin at a clinic on West Hastings Street—a first for North America.  

For Woo, covering such stories means her approach to journalism is constantly evolving.

“After years of covering the overdose crisis, after countless stories on the scope of the issue, what we’re doing and what we’re not doing, I struggle with how to keep the issue in the news,” Woo says.

“We’re still in the clutches of our worst overdose crisis ever, but I worry there could be reader and compassion fatigue.”

While Woo does not consider herself an advocate, there are some issues she believes have clear rights and wrongs. Namely, the treatment of minorities.

“To report on a contentious issue by merely presenting ‘both sides’ is not journalism,” Woo says. “At best, it’s lazy stenography and at worst, it’s the complicit normalizing and promotion of harmful, hateful people and ideologies at the expense of others, to real consequences.”

Woo quotes Christiane Amanpour, a British-Iranian journalist with CNN, who says that journalists must be “truthful, not neutral.” Woo says there’s no such thing as neutrality when it comes to the value of human life. But she reiterates that she is “not an activist.”

“I am cognizant of the power of journalism to influence public opinion and, by extension, effect social change,” she says.

“My job is not to push for changes in drug policy, for example, but to show how existing or proposed legislation directly impacts lives.”

Andrea Woo has worked on the substance use, mental health and drug policy beat at The Globe and Mail for seven years. Photo by Mathilda de Villiers.

Woo says journalists should report on mental illness and substance abuse like they would about other physical injuries. Dismantling stigma, she says, is one of the most powerful things a reporter can do.  

Woo says that working to report fairly on a community like the Downtown Eastside is an emotional burden that she has carried since she picked up the beat in her university days.

But her commitment to the beat has paid off. Woo’s reporting on the Pivot case aided in its victory and the implementation of a hydromorphone replacement program.  

De Silva says that there are lines that need to be drawn for journalists who become indirect activists for a community. With political activism, the line is drawn even more firmly.

With the use of social media and free expression, de Silva says she gets uncomfortable with journalists who are willing to share their thoughts on certain subjects so willingly, especially when it involves political biases.

To de Silva, journalists who share their political opinions are on shakey ground—and open themselves to general critisism of their reporting work.

But when it comes to human rights and equality, de Silva says she happily shares her opinions.   

“As a lesbian of colour, I have a certain life experience and a certain perspective. So when stories come up around LGBTQ+ rights, do I weigh in on those conversations? Absolutely,” she says.

“I think it’s important for people from diverse backgrounds to be a part of those conversations in newsrooms because that makes sure that when we tell stories we’re telling the whole story from all the other different perspectives.”

On many occasions de Silva has had to interview people opposed to LGBTQ+ rights, but she’s never feared the challenge.

In a time where journalists of colour have stepped up and are having a conversation about objectivity in the media, de Silva says it shows that “there’s a lot of racism and discrimination that goes on.”

It’s in situations like these where journalists can tread the line between activism and traditional reporting. “You have to have that curiosity and that willingness to be uncomfortable,” she says.

“That needs to trump perhaps their own personal feelings.”

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