FEATURE ARTICLE

Offensive Journalism Fuels Facebook Advocacy

By Sunny Dhillon
May 23, 2008


So you’ve been offended by a journalist.

Maybe it was Mark Steyn’s assertion that Islam is taking over the world that got to you. Or Ezra Levant’s reprinting of the Muhammad cartoons. Or perhaps you simply disagree with Terry Milewski’s portrayal of the Indo-Canadian community.

What’s your next step?

One option that’s become increasingly popular is filing a human rights complaint. Steyn has had such complaints lobbied against him in both Ontario and British Columbia. Ditto for Levant in Alberta.

Another means of recourse for the offended party is a civil suit. After Milewski’s Samosa Politics aired on CBC’s The National, the network was hit with a $110 million lawsuit by the World Sikh Organization. The WSO alleged the piece had slandered not only its reputation but also the reputation of the Sikh community as a whole.

A CRTC complaint, if applicable, is a third option. The Canadian regulator prohibits licensees from broadcasting “any abusive comment that, when taken in context, tends to or is likely to expose an individual or a group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability.”

There are letters to the editor. There are letters to your MLA. And there’s always heading down to an organization’s official headquarters for an impromptu protest.

But one response to offensive journalism that’s gained a lot of steam in recent years is online advocacy journalism.

The most famous example might well be the Killian documents that led to Dan Rather’s departure from CBS. On September 8, 2004, in a segment on 60 Minutes Wednesday, Rather told the story of President George W. Bush’s preferential treatment when he was a member of the Texas Air National Guard. Supporting the story was a series of memos purported to be from Bush’s commander, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian.

A number of online right-wing advocates, from influential bloggers to their anonymous readers, were convinced that the papers were forgeries filled with lies. These people set about proving as much, pointing to the fact that one of the fonts used in the memos didn’t even exist when the documents were said to have originated. Others recreated the exact papers in Microsoft Word with little to no effort.

While CBS originally disputed the claims – former network executive Jonathan Klein went so far as to dismiss the advocates as “a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing” with no credibility – the network soon realized its documents couldn’t be verified and admitted its mistake. The advocates had won.

While much has been made of this victory for the bloggers, a new attempt at online advocacy journalism – one gaining in popularity by the hour – has been largely ignored. I’m talking, of course, about Facebook.

Facebook is, in its own words, “a social utility that connects you with the people around you.” It boasts more than 70 million active members and the social networking site generates the fifth-most traffic of any webpage in the world.

Any Facebook user can create a group and the site currently hosts more than six million of them. The topics range from the popular 1990s television show Saved by the Bell to the writings of Tolstoy to the starvation of children in developing countries. And whenever an event of any consequence takes place, a Facebook group expressing a viewpoint on that event surfaces within a few hours, at most.

If we use Mr. Webster’s traditional definition of journalism, Facebook groups certainly don’t fit. “The collecting and editing of news for presentation through the media” implies a level of preparedness and professionalism that these groups generally lack. An obligation to truth and loyalty to citizens – two elements Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel identify as critical to journalism – are also not inherent.

But if we look at Facebook groups as advocacy journalism, as “journalism that advocates a cause or expresses a viewpoint,” often through non-objective means, then the idea isn’t quite so far-fetched. Facebook groups often attempt the same grassroots muckraking as advocacy journalists.

Offensive journalism is a real factor in the rapid creation of these online groups. Someone somewhere sees or hears a report they take offense to. Before long, a Facebook group is born.

“Mark Steyn is a waste of the printed page…”

“Ezra Levant is a moron.”

“CBC SLANDERS SIKHS AND THE SIKH COMMUNITY.”

These are just three of the groups that are dedicated to the journalists mentioned in the very beginning of this piece. The titles are undoubtedly aggressive, as is each group’s overall message.

But just as offensive journalism spurs advocates on one side of the debate, it frequently advocates on the other side of that same debate. Both Steyn and Levant, insulted in the aforementioned groups, are heralded in others dedicated to preserving free speech.

“Defend Free Speech in Canada – The Case of Mark Steyn” has almost 1,000 members. Its creator writes that he started the group “to raise awareness about the chilling effects on free speech the human rights complaints against author and columnist Mark Steyn will have.”

“Support Free Speech; Support Ezra Levant” has over 1,100 members of its own. Its administrator established the group to not only defend Levant, but also to “reinforce the idea that [Canada is] a country that supports the freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”

Facebook’s official stance has been somewhat mixed. Its policy on the creation of potentially slanderous groups comes across as airtight, at least at first.

“Note: groups that attack a specific person or group of people (e.g. racist, sexist, or other hate groups) will not be tolerated. Creating such a group will result in immediate termination of your Facebook account.”

The website offers a “report” feature that lets users flag inflammatory material but Facebook has proven slow to react to these reports and even slower to delete said material. Thousands of groups that violate the company’s terms litter its site, popping up at a rate that makes them difficult to sufficiently police.

While professional media watchdogs, such as the liberal Media Matters or the conservative Media Research Center, must choose their words carefully because they can be held accountable for them, the same simply isn’t true of Facebook advocates. The harshest penalty for most of these individuals is having their account temporarily deactivated. As a result, Facebook has become a haven for anti-journalism and anti-journalist attacks that are arguably, and ironically, offensive.

But is anyone taking these groups seriously? Not so much at the moment.

With blogs, there was a feeling-out period that lasted for several years. While they were read as early as the mid-1990s, blogs weren’t particularly well-respected at the time. Early variations tended to be either glorified rants or public diaries.

It wasn’t until 2002 that blogs gained even an ounce of respect as a means of advocacy journalism. On December 5 of that year, then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott attended a party honoring former presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond. Lott told those in attendance that if Thurmond, who was a strong supporter of racial segregation, had been elected president, the United States “wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.”

Bloggers, offended not only by Lott’s comments but also by the mainstream media’s unwillingness to run with the story, let their feelings be known. The advocates forced Lott to resign two weeks later. While the Killian documents brought blogging to the spotlight for many, it was the Lott incident that opened the door in the first place.

Facebook groups need a similar rallying point. Too many represent what blogging did in its early stages: journalism run amok.

In 2000, Sue Careless, a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists and a supporter of advocacy journalism, was invited to speak at the CAJ’s panel in Halifax. Careless supplied a set of rules for advocacy journalists to follow. Among her most important were:

1) “If you only spout slogans and cliches, and rant and rave, then you are not doing honest journalism. You need to articulate complex issues clearly and carefully.”

2) “Can a journalist have a declared bias and still practice journalism in a professional manner? Yes. In fact you may be seen as even more credible if your perspective is acknowledged up front.”

3) “A journalist writing for the advocacy press should practice the same skills as any journalist. You don't fabricate or falsify.”

4) “If you are covering a protest and a demonstrator hits a police officer or shouts profanities, you are obliged as a journalist to report those facts, embarrassing though they may be to a cause you personally support.”

5) “A good journalist must play devil's advocate. You must argue against your own convictions. In an interview, you still have to ask the hard questions of possible heroes, the tough questions even of the people you admire.”

Most of us are able to immediately identify a blog that meets these five tenets. But a Facebook group? It’s not quite as easy.

While Facebook advocacy can be a response to offensive journalism, it cannot yet be identified as advocacy journalism. The groups and the messages just aren’t refined enough. Too many are about settling scores rather than providing the relevant facts. Given the ease with which Facebook allows its members to create these groups, it might be quite some time before this is no longer the case.

And that might actually be to the benefit of journalists everywhere. As long as these groups continue to make their points through insults and irrationality, journalists will not have to ask the tough questions on why the groups are being established in the first place. Whether or not the disputed works are truly offensive remains an issue for another day because Facebook has yet to prove itself as worthy of such discussion.
 

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