Can journalists be activists?

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NNSL file photo
Yellowknifer columnist Walt Humphries has been a prominent activist in support of saving the Robertson Headframe. Not only did he dedicate columns to the cause, he attended city council meetings, filed a development appeal and led an entire campaign.

The answer is yes, no – well, it depends

Last week, former Toronto Star columnist Desmond Cole announced he’d been given an ultimatum.

Toronto Star says I can’t be a columnist and an activist at the same time, so I’m giving up my column,” he tweeted last Thursday morning.

He linked to a blog post, which went into the situation in greater detail. That week, Toronto Star’s editorial page editor, Andrew Phillips, took him aside to discuss an April 20 incident in which Cole refused to leave his chair after giving a deputation at a Toronto Police Services board meeting. Cole was there to speak against police carding.

Police carding is the practice of randomly stopping law-abiding people on the street to gather personal information, which goes into a police database. Cole’s concern about carding is that police use it to target the city’s black community.

That night at the board meeting, he refused to leave his seat until the police agreed to relinquish their carding information, and his protest caused the meeting to disband entirely.

Toronto Star public editor Kathy English wrote a column Friday morning to give more context to the situation. She explained the paper has a policy wherein journalists should avoid becoming the news.

“To be clear, Cole was not fired by the Star,” she wrote. “Nor disciplined or threatened with any consequences. Phillips apprised Cole of the Star’s policies and told him he hoped he would stay on as a freelance columnist.”

This issue brings up a number of questions. Can journalists be activists? Are columnists journalists? What is a journalist, even?

Googling the word journalist brings up a broad definition: it is a “person who writes for newspapers, magazines, or news websites, or prepares news to be broadcast.”

But within that definition are reporters, who write news, and columnists, who write opinion.

Reporters are tasked to write about issues in a community that are in the public interest in the context of who, what, when, where, why and how. Reporters should never allow themselves to appear biased, because if they appear biased, their stories will also appear biased.

Columnists, on the other hand, are paid specifically to have an opinion, and many columnists also identify as activists. This includes former Toronto Star columnist Naomi Klein, New York Daily News columnist Shaun King, Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem, former Toronto Star columnist Michele Landsberg and Maclean’s Magazine columnist Andray Domise, to name a few.

Columnists are hired because they are passionate, knowledgeable and persuasive writers, so it makes sense for some columnists’ activities to bleed from the page into the real world.

Yellowknifer has its own activist columnist. In the years leading up to the demolition of the Robertson Headframe, Walt Humphries was the voice leading the cause to save the structure.

Aside from the numerous columns he wrote on the subject, he considered a run for mayor in 2015 on this platform, raised money, participated in heated debates with city council, participated in protests and even filed a development appeal against the demolition.

Over at News/North is Cece McCauley, who won an Indspire Award earlier this year for her unrelenting efforts to get the federal government to build a highway up the Mackenzie Valley. Again, aside from using her column to advocate for the project, she’s lobbied territorial leaders, federal leaders and even Oprah.

So, the question of whether journalists can be activists needs to be considered within the context of whether the journalist in question is a reporter or columnist.

When people discuss the ethics of journalism, columnists are held to an entirely different standard than reporters, and newspaper ethical guidelines should reflect this. The rigorous standards that reporters keep to appear unbiased by keeping political opinions to themselves is an absolutely essential component of good journalism. But this standard does not work for columnists, who are paid to espouse their opinions.

As for the Toronto Star Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide, it applies its rules of conduct to all of its journalists, including columnists. There is a sub-section dedicated to columns, stating columnists have a long leash when it comes to writing opinions, even when those opinions run counter to editorials but that’s pretty much it.

It’s important that those of us who make the news continue to scrutinize the decisions we make and the ethics by which we live. As well, we have duty to help readers understand these rules. Just like a reporter must keep an unbiased image, newspapers must apply their own ethical standards in a fair and transparent way, otherwise newspapers themselves risk losing credibility.