Good advocacy journalism -- The French daily Liberation on the right to die


What the weak head with strongest bias rules, Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, (1711) line 203.

Regular readers of these columns will discern my disdain for advocacy journalism. It is part of my personal catalogue of the seven deadly sins. Let us tick them off according to Pope Gregory I’s list: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, wnvy and pride. Advocacy journalism is the reporter’s particular sin of pride. It takes humility to handle opposing voices with accuracy and respect.

But I do not want to dismiss this style out of hand for there are many examples of excellent opinion-centered news articles. A recent story on euthanasia from the French daily Libération is an example of how to do advocacy journalism well.

But first let us define our terms. In a recent GetReligion article, editor tmatt described the clash of ideologies between the classical school of Anglo-American reporting, and the older but now revived school of advocacy reporting.

When I say "old-school journalism," I am referring to what textbooks often call the "American model of the press," which stresses that journalists should strive to honor standards of accuracy, fairness and balance when covering the news. The key: When reporting on hot-button issues, journalists should strive to treat people on all sides of these debates with respect.
This classically liberal approach to news emerged, and evolved, in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The goal was to produce news that was as independent as possible, thus exposing readers to genuine diversity. Citizens could then make up their own minds.
An older, advocacy model built on clear editorial biases -- often called the "European model" -- has remained a crucial part of modern journalism, primarily in magazines and journals of opinion (think The Nation, National Review, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard).

The classical school dominated mainstream reporting in the Anglosphere from the first third of the 20th Century. While there were lapses most mainstream newspapers sought to keep opinions on the editorial pages -- that is what made them “mainstream”.

This tradition never quite took hold in Europe, where newspapers were often tied to political parties, labor movements or ideological causes. The French daily Libération, also know as Libé,  was founded in 1973 in the wake of the May 1968 political protests by Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge July.

Until 1980 the paper took no paid advertising, with even its classified ads printed without charge. Freed from these constraints, it developed a vibrant sometimes flamboyant journalistic style and became a force on the French left. The changing newspaper market forced it to change its advertising policy, but the newspaper’s voice is recognizable as that of the center-left -- between the Communist papers and the Socialist Party papers. When you purchase Libé you know what your are getting. And it is often quite good -- even for an unrepentant devotee of classical journalism.

On Sept 13 the paper ran a story entitled: "Anne Bert, mourir sans souffrir, le droit de choisir" that reported on the decision by French novelist Anne Bert to travel to Belgium to undergo euthanasia during the last stages of ALS, or as it is called in France, Charcot’s Disease.

The article is sympathetic to Bert’s plight, opening with a description of her illness and then reminding readers that in April Bert wrote an open letter to the French presidential candidates urging them to reform the current laws on euthanasia.

Décider d’abréger ma fin de vie plutôt que de végéter emmurée avant de mourir est un choix éclairé en accord avec ma vision de l’existence. Je le fais dans un état d’esprit lucide, et qui m’apporte un peu d’apaisement.

Continue reading "Good advocacy journalism -- Liberation on the right to die" by George Conger.

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