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Colin Harris ADE

Colin Harris ADE

The Guardian’s divestment campaign: Does advocacy compromise journalistic integrity?

201507-11

By Juliana Knapp

Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Conscientious journalists adhere to a professional code of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability.

Yet journalists are also concerned citizens, with a civic duty and moral responsibility to communicate and advocate for truth. And society, from the scientific community to the pope, now recognizes that there is no truth more evident than the need for urgent climate action.

This year, in partnership with 350.org, the Guardian launched the Keep it in the Ground campaign, calling on the Wellcome Trust and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s two largest health charities to move their investments out of the top 200 oil, coal and gas companies within five years. The campaign has been both hailed and criticized, galvanizing debate about its implications for objective and impartial journalism.

At the Our Common Future climate change conference, a panel of journalists fielded questions on the Guardian’s campaign, as well as on the rights and wrongs of journalism as advocacy. Damian Carrington, Environment Editor for the Guardian, summarized his campaign support succinctly:

Why this campaign? “I’m an advocate for reality” said Carrington. It’s defendable, rooted in reality, aligned with values, and completely open and transparent. 

Why now? Because action now, though late, is better than never. 

And for how long? “Watch this space.”

The session also touched on the journalistic responsibility to honor and tell the truth, to protect human dignity, and to inform the public. But just how deeply can journalists engage in advocacy while still remaining objective? 

 “There are no objective truths,” according to Dagmar Dehmer, Energy Transition and Climate Change Correspondent from Der Tagesspiegel. “I have context and views that will come into my reporting, but I will report as fairly as possible.”

Andrew Revkin, an Environment writer with New York Times Dot Earth, discussed objectivity and reconciling personal passions with the professional detachment that comes with life as a journalist.

But objectivity is not the only challenge of campaign journalism. There can also be an opportunity cost. “What worries me about choosing a specific agenda, said Revkin, is it will come at the expense of something you won’t cover.”

Indeed, you may limit your story choice by focusing on divestment, for example, instead of covering a wide range of other climate topics. In doing this, you may miss out on important news. 

While campaign journalism may be more commonplace in the UK, this is not the case everywhere.  In some countries, journalists may face the challenge of maintaining the trust of readers, without the public thinking or feeling they are being manipulated. 

“No German newspaper would have an advocacy campaign like this” Dehmer said. “The public expectation [in Germany] is that papers supply true information,” she explained.

Despite these challenges, climate scientists and conference attendees responded with a resounding “yes” when polled by a show of hands in support of the campaign.

One audience member commented that the Guardian’s campaign has “educated the population of UK, including herself.” “I was unaware how much money the Wellcome Trust was spending taking coal out of the earth,” she said.

As far as the campaign, she mused, “I don’t care what the outcome is. But having read Wellcome Trust’s response was enough to make me think, do I want to invest in this fund in the future, as much as I consider whether the coffee I buy is fair trade or not.”

Juliana Knapp is a communications and climate change consultant at the World Bank. She is a volunteer social reporter at the #CFCC15 conference.

This is part of a blog series profiling climate scientists, economists, social scientists and civil society members who are presenting and discussing innovative climate science at Our Common Future. For more follow @ClimatParis2015 and #CFCC15 on Twitter.

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