Advocacy Journalism Part II: Who are we and what are we doing?

As professionals in the information sector, let us aim to advocate for constituencies and communities beyond a business or industry’s customer base and supplier networks.

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash
Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

As we lurch along in this 21st century, we’re faced with some serious existential challenges that affect every business sector, that impact consumers across every socioeconomic category and that could potentially be disastrous for the institutions that serve as the pillars of society.

Thus, we need to ask: What is our role as B2B journalists in dealing with the growing climate crisis, with spiraling economic inequality and some serious limitations on energy, land and resources? How do we respond as professional media members with knowledge and expertise about the dynamics of specific business communities and their interactions with the public and the policymakers?

Are we supposed to function as objective, dispassionate reporters, a role in which I was thoroughly indoctrinated while earning an undergraduate degree in journalism school? No offense to the good professors at the University of Oregon with whom I studied back in the 1970s, but that was a very different era—there was no social media and the career track focused mostly on entry-level jobs at small-town newspapers or as copyeditors for consumer magazines. I never heard one word about “business journalism” my entire undergraduate career.

Or, are we supposed to serve as professional cheerleaders? This was the direction that publishers of some of the first B2B magazines I worked on in the 1980s had encouraged me to take. Editors at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich at that time had been expected to produce and promote advertorial pieces showcasing advertisers’ equipment and technology; partner with the magazine’s sales staff at trade shows to lend credibility to their promises of editorial coverage in exchange for ad placement; and prioritize the “experts” at manufacturing and supplier companies who bought ads whenever we lined up sources for scientific or technical features.

Or, do we position ourselves as some sort of hybrid, New Age journalist—part objective reporter on a mission to research the facts and part glorified PR staffer spinning the copy we create to flatter folks who, we’re constantly reminded, pay our salaries?

Personally, I reject all three caricatures of B2B journalists, and let me explain why.

Exploring a new reality

There’s certainly a role for objective, just-the-facts journalists: the reporters covering local government or those who work for a scientific beat that requires “dumbing down” technical jargon and hard science for a lay audience.

But where else is that professional posture a valuable one? More to the point, where else does it even exist? It’s not often a valuable posture for entertainment, sports or politics reporting.

Whether in print, online or on cable TV, if the writer/reporter/talking head doesn’t have a hot take, he or she doesn’t stick around beyond a couple of news cycles.

For better or worse, we’ve evolved, culturally and socially, to where we not only prefer opinion to data, I’d argue the time is long past when “just the facts” can move the needle in response to any of a half dozen ongoing crises you’d care to name.

And what about those business editors and writers who have embraced the mission of showcasing “success stories,” without worrying (or wondering) about either the societal context in which such prosperity is achieved or to the consequences of a business sector’s pursuit of profitability without regard for the externalities their operations might impose on the environment and on society?

That cannot be the end point of the time, effort and research the majority of business editors with whom I’ve worked have sunk into their careers, their professional development and the output of stories and profiles they’ve produced.

Instead, I would argue that we need to embrace the role of “advocacy journalism,” of serving not as conduits for business leaders to congratulate each other or as glorified PR professionals looking for the positive spin on a story, but rather as informed-yet-skeptical professionals unafraid to ask sources hard questions about sustainability, social responsibility, community investment, environmental protection, worker health and safety, conservation of resources, commitment to diversity and equity or about any of another two dozen issues germane to the industries we cover.

Examples that prove the point

Let me offer a couple of examples of how business journalists can advocate for positive change—one relatively benign, though beneficial; the other, controversial, yet highly consequential.

First, nutritional labeling on food packaging. It might seems ridiculous to cite this issue as an example of a pitched battle, but back in the early 1990s, the leaders of the meat and poultry industries, which I covered at the time, actually sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prevent the department from mandating that processed products (such as deli meats and sausages) provide consumers with data on protein, carbohydrates and fat content.

Guess what? Not only did consumer group backlash and legislative threats pressure the naysayers, but the virtually unanimous support of such commonsense labeling by editors covering that industry eventually forced the issue.

After being shamed into compliance, the marketing teams for the industry’s leading companies realized that they could use the nutritional data they had been so reluctant to reveal to position their products as good-for-you choices consumers could purchase with confidence. Thus, was born the era of lite, lean and low-fat meats, which are products that dominate the category today.

On another issue of much greater gravity—accusations of animal abuse on farms, ranches and at packing plants—the editors and writers covering the meat and poultry industries were even more outspoken about the need for serious reform.

Predictably, industry executives and their paid mouthpieces rejected even the suggestion that livestock producers might be mistreating farm animals, relaying on a shopworn argument that such tactics “would hurt our bottom line.”

It took years and it required pressure from multiple sources, including animal activist groups that smuggled out hidden videos made inside meatpacking plants, ones that then appeared on mainstream media platforms. Eventually, however, reforms came fast—again, with substantial pressure from editors like me whose commentaries confronted the basic moral imperative to treat animals humanely.

I can tell you from firsthand experience over several decades that “industry standard” practices once commonplace, such as use of branding irons and cattle prods or overcrowding at feedlots and auctions pens, no longer exist.

And here’s the takeaway: despite the significant changes in how breeders, ranchers and packers conduct their operations, the industry didn’t collapse. The wave of doomsday bankruptcies predicted by industry types never materialized. The financial disaster scenario painted by the companies affected by the reforms turned out to be a mirage.

Embracing a professional mandate

Those examples are but a few among many in which the editors who have spent their careers covering various industries have served as agents of change. Such a mission needs to be front and center in any contemporary B2B editor’s job description.

Without question, there are corrupt executives out there who need to be confronted on their malfeasance. There are also born-again business believers, as I label them, who need to be questioned about their faith in unfettered capitalism. Neither can simply be taken at their word that, left to regulate themselves, all will be well.

Because unless we’re willfully blind, we can—and must—recognize the consequences of the business community’s obsession with profits über alles: economic inequities reminiscent of the Gilded Age, rampant erosion of middle-class lifestyles and an existential climate crisis that may wipe out all of our other problems.

In the end, if we’re willing to accept business as usual as the core of our job descriptions, we don’t deserve to be called journalists. Regardless of political affiliation or philosophical orientation, we must be ready to pose difficult questions, willing to dig beneath superficial rationales and able to pursue our research and reporting within a contextual framework that encompasses the social, economic and environmental variables directly impacted by the players in the business sectors we cover.

As professionals in the information sector, if we don’t advocate for constituencies and communities beyond a business or industry’s customer base and supplier networks, we might as well drop the charade of calling ourselves journalists and accept that we’re little more than paid shills for businesses we’re supposed to hold accountable.

Dan Murphy is a commentator on agricultural and food production issues with Farm Journal Media’s print and online properties.

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.

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