Advocacy and Truth: A Journalist’s Dilemma

31 Jul

A recent article about a new current events television show in India hosted by actor Aamir Kahn caught my attention the other day, and along with a few other things has got me thinking about the journalism profession. Through his program, called Truth Will Prevail in English, Khan has been shining a light on a bunch of serious issues that many of his viewers don’t usually like to think about. From the treatment of Dalits to female ‘foetuscide’ to dowry revenge, none of these issues or practices is new. But for some reason, the fact that someone like Mr. Khan has been placing them on such a broad stage seems to have made them points of concern, or perhaps made it fashionable to care about them.

The other interesting aspect here for me is the idea that for Mr. Khan, a famous Bollywood who said he turned down the opportunity of doing a game show in favour of TWP, telling — as opposed to revealing, let’s say — the truth about an unpleasant side of the national psyche is what a current affairs program, and by extension, journalism ought to be about. And like him, I also consider the role of any good journalist to be as much one of informing as — given the world we live in — if not actual advocacy, preparing the ground for others to advocate and agitate. To demand accountability and change.

Yet recently I have had the unpleasant task of educating myself about a former Haitian president named Jean Bertrand Aristide, attempting to rely on two different books in order to do so. One author, a former Reuters correspondent, considers Aristide an evil man from whom international governments and Haitian elites were right to wrest the presidency in two separate coups 13 years apart. The other, a British professor, sees Aristide as a sainted champion of the poor, cynically prevented from transforming Haiti into a more just and economically balanced country by greedy capitalist villains intent on maintaining their monopolistic privileges. From their opposing ends of the same spectrum, both books bear similar tones of righteous indignation and emotionalism. Both bear elements of truth, no doubt, but end up being impossible to believe in their entirety.

And so I am left feeling not only uninformed but wondering whether facts and advocacy can be, at times, well, inimical. Does one need to reconcile what can be, as these two books show, at odds?

In fact, these two very different takes on the same events reminds me of the time I gave a lecture on journalism at the history faculty of a university in Ciudad Juarez. At the end of it, one professor told me, “I find this whole idea very strange. As a historian I would never rely on the newspapers or television for my information.”

That was what I trying to call for, I said, for journalists to recognize that our recounting of what happens today is the history of tomorrow, and that this compels us to be both truthful, contextual and broadly, not narrowly, informative.

At the same time, I have to admit that my personal convictions also come into play and that I don’t feel the need to apologize for them. When it comes to what I write about and how I write, I do stand on the side of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. I do take it as a given that anything that or anyone who perpetuates poverty and injustice is in the wrong. I want people to know about it and I hope people will try and do something about it. Advocacy is at the core of what I believe good, serious journalism to be.

In the case of Mr. Aristide, for example, it seems obvious to me that both coups against him, including the second, more contentious of the two, were completely wrong, not to mention illegal and disastrous. Even as I question the notion of his being an entirely innocent and blameless human being, I see the wrongness of orchestrating a coup against a duly elected president as a fact, as truth.

But is this just ‘my’ truth? If I can assert that poverty is bad and unfair in an article or a book, can’t someone else assert that, in certain cases, forcing an elected leader from the presidency is okay?

Like any researcher, in order to get to the truth, I observe, ask questions and read. Then I observe some more and ask more questions. And yet personal convictions are never absent.

I understand that both writers are expressing what they consider to be the truth, just like Aamir Kahn is doing, and just as I try to do myself. So as I begin to write a new book, I realize the importance of bearing in mind that the truth is complex as well as personal, and that nonetheless it is there. It has to be. And it has to be shown as being there.

Can too much passion end up being problematic and unproductive?  Do readers want an author to be indignant for them? Would it not be simpler and better to be provided with the facts and allowed to draw our own conclusions? Does the writer’s point of view enrich those facts? Or is it a kind of lense that only ends up making things blurry.

I can’t pretend to know all the answers. And I recognize that the subject could easily fill a book if not several. But finding the balance within an equation that has always seemed so straightforward may more of a challenge that I’d previously thought.

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One Response to “Advocacy and Truth: A Journalist’s Dilemma”

  1. Mike D August 1, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    Hi Augusta – good article. Mike

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