Advocacy journalism: It needs to be the new norm

Consider changing the way we conduct ourselves as business journalists.

By Dan Murphy

Over the years, those of us in the news and information business have embraced (or endured) new journalism, gonzo journalism and, most recently, online journalism featuring multiplatform, visually rich content as a substitute for our formerly deathless prose.

Although the format has evolved, the prime directive of journalism remains objectivity: Report the facts, include both sides of a debate and allow readers, viewers and listeners to form their own judgments on the issues affecting whatever industry or profession that we cover.

I submit that such an orientation is obsolete, and as a result, I suggest we change the way we conduct ourselves as business journalists.

But before you close the tab on this article, first hear me out.

The new metrics of success

This “mission” of mine originated a few years ago after serving several stints as a judge for ASBPE’s Magazine of the Year contest. In reviewing the publications submitted each year—and these are the “best of the best”—I was disturbed by what seemed to be a laser-like focus on success stories (as expected), profiles of companies dominating their categories (standard fare, to be sure) and glowing features about the overall prosperity of the sector editors were covering. Most of the featured stories were about bottom-line profitability.

I understand that profitability is the principal metric for judging the success of a business or profession these days, but therein lies my concern. Without attention to such overriding issues as sustainability, environmental impact, economic inequality and a host of other serious and substantive challenges, even the award-winning publications we properly praise as “standard setters” start to feel like publicity publications for their respective industries or professions.

Now, I’m not suggesting that as business editors we’re obligated to showcase all the different activist causes that may oppose the industries we cover. What I am suggesting is an editorial stance focused on leadership, not necessarily advocacy.

As leaders in any business or industry, I do think we should be willing to raise issues of concern that might be unpleasant or even aggravating to the companies in that sector. To do otherwise puts us in danger of becoming little more than PR shills for the businesses about which we research and report.

Photo by Vladimir Solomyani on Unsplash
Are B2B publications investigating issues beyond profitability? Photo by Vladimir Solomyani on Unsplash

A track record of changing mindsets

Maybe I’m biased because I’ve spent several decades of my career writing and commenting on agriculture, livestock production and meatpacking. As you’d imagine, there were plenty of issues the executives in those industries preferred to ignore: the high rate of injuries and repetitive motion problems among workers in packing plants; the often troubling social impact of recruiting and employing a largely immigrant workforce; environmental problems with hog farms and cattle feedlots; foodborne outbreaks from E. coli O157:H7, salmonella and other microbial pathogens; and controversies such as mad cow disease and pink slime.

I can’t tell you how many commentaries I wrote—along with editors at competing magazines, by the way—calling out the industries on those and other ongoing problems. We successfully promoted industry-initiated changes, supported efforts by consumer groups to advance regulatory and legislative reform and published investigative reporting that spotlighted those problems, even as we tried to balance our coverage with reporting on companies trying to make positive improvements.

None of that is to suggest I deserve some special recognition; indeed, I believed then and now that’s what I was supposed to be doing as a professional business editor.

Challenges abound in every sector

Fast-forward to today. Name any industry or profession you choose. In every single one there are issues of concern that are too often ignored or downplayed by editors at the publications covering those sectors. That’s no knock on the quality of their journalistic efforts. Rather, it’s an observation that the business sector needs to step up as an integral partner in developing solutions to the climate crisis, to energy issues, to urban sprawl, to rebuilding infrastructure and to the challenge of providing affordable housing in virtually every major city in the country.

I’m not trying to rattle off some progressive political agenda here; the problems, challenges and issues to which I’m referring are systemic. They cross partisan boundaries and they ultimately imperil the very consumer spending and business stability that support the industries and the professions we cover as editors.

At corporate meetings, activist shareholders often demand that along with the pursuit of quarterly profits, corporations also prioritize social responsibility, investments in their workforce and contributions to the communities where they do business.

I’m suggesting that ASBPE editors also have a dual responsibility: to showcase the achievements of the companies and individuals they profile and to take on the challenge of reporting on the issues connected with those industries—ones that cannot and should not be overlooked or ignored.

I believe we can be both solid, professional journalists and leaders who refuse to sidestep discussions of the challenges that every industry and every profession needs to confront.

If we’re not leading the people who read our magazines, listen to our podcasts and watch our videos, we’re not only shortchanging our own potential as journalists, we’re abdicating our responsibility to advance not just business profitability but positive progress in dealing with all of the challenges noted above.

As human beings we’re called, are we not, to make sure our lives include efforts to make this a better world. We need to ask ourselves what we’re doing as journalists to ensure that the businesspeople we profile are engaged in that same process.

Dan Murphy is a commentator whose “Meat of the Matter” columns are published on, a website devoted to livestock production that is published by Farm Journal Media.

Dan Murphy

Dan Murphy has served several decades as a writer, editor and commentator for leading publishers in New York City, Cleveland, Chicago and Phoenix, including editor-in-chief of business magazines in health care, food processing and licensed apparel. He is a long-time member of ASBPE and author of several books, including his latest: “Taking It to the Top,” the definitive guide for coaches of competitive Speech teams.

Please share this page with your friends and colleagues.