Reflection: Journalists or activists?

By Nicole Ziege, F/G Scholar

During last week’s class, we discussed journalists like Elijah Lovejoy and Ida B. Wells. Dr. Lee asked us if we would categorize journalists like Lovejoy as journalists or as activists. I said that we should still label them as journalists because journalists and activists walked a fine line in the 1800s, as they still do today. The work of journalists is to tell stories and bring awareness to certain topics and stories on a national and global scale. One could argue that the goal of activists is very similar in that they also want to bring awareness to certain topics and issues happening on a national and global scale.

However, activists are far more biased than journalists, or are supposed to be, because they are focused on one single cause. For example, if you are an animal rights advocate and activist, you will probably be more focused on discovering stories of animals being abused on farms and will probably want to share them to spread awareness of animal rights in order to sway the public in your favor. In addition to sharing stories, you will probably protest and petition to stop animal abuse in many forms, and you will not be interested in learning the reasons for why the animal abuse is occurring or listening to those who are allegedly causing the animal abuse. You will just want it to stop.

The main difference between these individuals and journalists is that journalists do not go out and protest or petition against an issue when they are covering a story. Journalists are supposed to be as unbiased as possible in order to share both sides to the story. For example, if there is a story of animal abuse, a journalist would reach out to animal rights activists and alleged animal abusers in order to get the full story.

However, in the 1800s, journalism was different than it is now. Journalists were very similar to activists because they supported a cause and wanted to help support that cause by writing stories about it. One particular journalist that I thought of who was similar to an activist was Ida B. Wells, who was an early journalist who wrote and exposed stories of African-American people who were being lynched in the American South due to an intense amount of white supremacy. I view Wells as an early journalist because she used her activism as a means to report on and expose the terrible lynchings that were taking place in the South. By objectively reporting on the issue, she was able to share it with many other Americans through her newspaper, and more attention was drawn to the issue. Although the early American journalists were not focused on being unbiased, they used their activism as a means to write and share stories of events and issues that were taking place around the country. The media’s emphasis on being unbiased seemed to take over during the twentieth century.

Elijah Lovejoy is similar to Ida B. Wells as one of America’s early journalists because he used his anti-slavery activism to write against slavery in The Observer. Although Lovejoy’s journalistic skills were very biased in favor of the abolition of slaves in the United States, I would argue that journalism was different back then. The media was not focused on being unbiased and being factual, even though it probably should have been. Newspapers and journalists were focused on spreading awareness on different issues that they were passionate about, and they did that by producing newspapers and writing about events that were taking place in the country.

Journalists and activists are similar in their desires to spread awareness about a cause that they are interested in, but journalists take a more objective route in activism sometimes. Rather than viewing an issue through a biased lens, journalists can decide to take a more objective lens with reporting on different issues.

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Nicole Ziege

Nicole Ziege is a honors student at WKU. She is majoring in journalism and minoring in history.

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