The advocate

adam-murphy-33009WGCL showed some enterprise and got a nice scoop earlier this month when Adam Murphy produced a story on metro Atlanta’s only toll road, Georgia 400.  The story basically said this:  Although tolls are producing many times the revenue needed to pay the road’s 18 year old construction bonds, the state intends to continue to keep raking in the surplus change until 2011.

Once the bond is paid off, the state is obliged to stop collecting the toll.  The implication is that the state is stalling paying off the bond so that it can keep milking the cash cow, fifty cents at a time.

“My goal is to find out why the state continues to collect your money,” says Murphy at the start of one of several follow-up pieces.  In the last week, Murphy and WGCL have become unflinching advocates for the viewpoint that the continued collection of the toll is a ripoff.  The station has even started an online petition to “take down Ga. 400 tolls.”  And it has a link on its web site to contact members of the Georgia Tollway board, several of whom are dodging WGCL’s effort to ask why the toll continues to be collected.

As the news business evolves, WGCL is trying to evolve with it.  In journalism schools, news is taught as the art of detachment and objectivity.  But advocacy has been rampant at Fox News for many years.  Newspapers and pamphlets have advocated certain viewpoints on stories since the invention of the printing press.  In fact, audiences often find advocacy where none exists and are increasingly suspicious when newsfolk plead that they deliver balance.

Likewise, investigative reporters all-but advocate viewpoints (Shouldn’t this loophole be closed?  Shouldn’t this bad guy be punished?  Shouldn’t the city stop overcharging water customers?  Shouldn’t this state government toilet stop wasting hot water?)  So WGCL is on firm ground here.

But the petition carries its advocacy to another level.  On one hand, it drives interested viewers to WGCL’s website, always an important goal.  On the other, it removes any pretense of objectivity.  The station is still a fact-finder, but in the same way that a plaintiff’s lawyer is a fact-finder:  With the goal of strengthening a particular viewpoint.  The dismissal of its own objectivity is a perilous strategy in a quest to build viewership.  Even if it’s on a story-by-story basis.

Curiously, WGCL’s petition only has about two hundred signatures on it as of Monday afternoon.

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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

10 thoughts on “The advocate

  1. Locutus of Borg

    Long ago, I got into a heated but friendly debate with a newspaper reporter in a smaller sized Georgia city. His paper was jumping into advocacy journalism, and he was a big believer. He believed journalists should champion certain topics or causes in the community. Otherwise, he said, journalists are nothing more than chroniclers of current events. I replied that’s exactly what journalists are “chroniclers of current events”. A reporter should report without bias or prejudice otherwise they aren’t reporters at all; they’re advocates. Report the news with truth and/or balance and let the readers or viewers decide what to do with that information.

    It reminds me of the New York Times/Martha Burke fiasco a few years back. The NYT decided on its own that the Augusta National Golf Club should admit women members. For months, the paper assigned half a dozen reporters to this topic even though no real controversy existed previous to its coverage. Augusta National was a private club and could admit whomever it wanted. Finally, the day of the big Martha Burke protest outside the gates of the Masters came around, and media members outnumbered the protesters five to one. The “contorversy” was exposed for what it was: a non-event pushed by advocacy journalism.

    Journalists shouldn’t create controversy. They should report the truth and let people decide if its controversial.

  2. john

    But when journalists see something that doesn’t seem right or fair there is no reason they shouldn’t pursue.

  3. gooberpeas

    “In journalism schools, news is taught as the art of detachment and objectivity. But advocacy has been rampant at Fox News for many years.”

    and anyone that’s watched Monica (Kaufman) Pearson, for example, knows that advocacy is not limited to Fox News Network.

  4. Mr. Bear

    Well, there’s always the “environmental” approach. All those cars stopping and starting again are generating more emissions than those that are simply passing by at speed.

  5. tower child

    And WGCL has stayed on the story. WXIA did it one day and just walked away. Clearly the 11 Alive folkks are following 46.

    Just yesterday 11 alive did a water meter story acting like they discovered the problem. It had me LOL. WGCL was doing the story daily for the past couple of months.

  6. toto

    Yeah, but nobody’s watching 46, including the other stations. Besides, has 46 never been guilty of picking up another stations story?

  7. Pingback: 10 Atlanta media moments, 2009 « live apartment fire

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