Can journalists be activists while still being true to their profession, asks Deborah Walter, the editor of the Gender and Media Diversity Journal: Media, Activism, & Change. Certainly bringing otherwise unheard voices into the public domain is good, activist journalism. 

Deborah Walter writes:

 While compiling contributions for the fourth issue of the Gender and Media Diversity Journal (GMDJ), focusing on “Media, Activism, and Change,” many questions and contradictions arose about the role of media, as well as how activists use media to forward their agendas.  Launched on 7 May with a seminar and cyber dialogue to debate some of the issues raised, the journal brings together experiences and insights from journalists and activists from Southern Africa and around the world.

One key issue that emerges from the journal is the question of whether journalists can be activists or whether this is in fact bias, and goes against the very basic principles of good journalism?

Objectivity is one of the core principles of journalism. Yet, everyone comes from a historical, ideological, and experiential background. Journalists, like anyone else, can be passionate about causes, and have opinions. On the other hand, activists who effectively use media can advance their own issues and priorities, to advocate for change.

Objectivity and bias have many forms.  Lack of gender and racial balance in media representation is a type of bias.  Media freedom is not just about the ability of journalists to report without fear or constraint, but also about access, capacity, and commitment to media diversity that ensures fair and inclusive reporting.  

The launch of the Diversity Journal comes when South Africa is coping with a looming energy crisis, local media celebrity Redi Direko has been actively campaigning to end gender violence in taxi ranks,  recent electoral happenings in Kenya and Zimbabwe have attracted world attention, and food prices are rising worldwide. Like it or not, media plays an integral role, through what they do and do not report, on focusing attention on social development and human rights issues.

Meanwhile, activists are becoming more astute at influencing media.  Both media and activists can benefit by increasing their knowledge of each other. Though the newly launched journal focuses on gender, HIV/AIDS, governance, and child and youth media, journalists also become involved in diverse issues such as environmental reporting, post-conflict reconciliation, and a wide range of health coverage, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and measles. 

In her contribution to the journal, Zarina Geloo, owner and editor of Zambian Weekly Guardian, personifies the struggle between media and activism. She expresses her own self-conflict concerning her role as a human rights activist and a journalist. She fully recognises that this role, and how others perceive it, is a difficult balance when it comes to bias.

Recalling her involvement with a story on early marriages that turned into assisting the girl involved, she recollects, “I was not spared the wrath of the girls’ parents who asked whether I was a police officer, a judge or a journalist. Many media people asked the same question, somewhere more forthright, and asked me why I had bothered to set up a newspaper when I really should have formed an NGO.”

She further explains, “It is an uncomfortable place I find myself in, because on the one hand I agree that journalists must maintain a professional distance from their stories…On the other hand, how can someone be objective in the face of human rights abuses, especially against vulnerable people like children? How can someone’s misery not touch you and move you into action?”

Contributor and panellist at the launch, Sunday Times Deputy Managing Editor Susan Smuts shared her experience of running the “Everyone Knows Someone” Campaign, a weekly column in which people affected by HIV and AIDS can share experiences, as a way of reducing stigma and getting people talking. Smuts comments, “I don’t know whether this is activism or good journalism. Maybe it’s a bit of both.”  

Though media is generally the domain of trained journalists, such personal narratives relating complex issues tell a different side of the story. Participants at the launch agreed that there is space in the media for publishing first-hand accounts from non-journalists, as a way of telling unheard stories. 

Another example is Gender Links’ annual production of ‘I’ Stories, which helps survivors of gender violence write and publish their stories in mainstream media, to raise awareness of the very real experiences of violence.  Gender Links (GL), under the banner of promoting gender “in and through the media,” works with a broad range of partners to try to redress gender gaps in media through research, advocacy, and training, targeting media producers, those who influence news content, and consumers.

Increasing the diversity of voices and access to media creates a richer media landscape. Another group often forgotten are children and youth. Yet when given opportunities, young people are leading advocates on rights and health. Already marginalised communities, such as rural women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, and migrants, are often under reported, or covered in ways that encourage stereotypes and discrimination. Encouraging access to media for these groups, and building capacity of journalists to report on them, is part of a free and impartial media.

Another question that arises from the journal is the responsibility of the media when it comes to reporting complex social issues. Mia Malan explores the tension between using correct terminology and expressing concepts in the plain language of journalistic writing that readers and listeners can easily understand.

Through some journalists argue that HIV requires coverage the same as any other issue, without all of the sensitivity, Malan counters, “The difference is, of course, that the HIV epidemic is the most politicised and stigmatised disease the world has ever seen. Moreover, the manifestation of this is especially prevalent in a country like South Africa…. Language and politics are intertwined; language shapes beliefs and influences behaviour.”

Looking ahead to the future, to media and new technologies, there is likely increasing civic journalism. People are beginning to create their own media and communication, through such outlets as blogs, podcasts, and You Tube. As access to technologies increase, they provide even more opportunities for access to information. Yet, the unregulated world of the internet, presents its own challenges for objectivity, bias, and fair reporting.

The recent launch of the Gender and Media Diversity Centre, managed by Gender Links and the Gender and Media Southern Africa (GEMSA) Network working with an advisory group, will provide ongoing opportunities for media and activists (and those who may consider themselves both) to engage in debate and dialogue, share ideas, and create partnerships.

Through this kind of interaction, both media and activists will strengthen their abilities to play their respective, and evolving, roles.

* Deborah Walter is the editor of the Gender and Media Diversity Journal: Media, Activism, & Change. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news. To read the journal: