The journalist as an activist: are they mutually exclusive? Rabble doesn’t think so.
Compare the Coverage
Rabble tells the news stories that are underreported or not reported at all through a progressive analysis, says Rabble’s publisher Kim Elliot. She says that if readers are skeptical about what they read in mainstream news, they can turn to Rabble for social and historical context that will give a better understanding of current events.
By Martha Jane Deacon
The word rabble is often an insulting one. It can refer to an unruly crowd or riot. It can deliberately insult people without money or status. But for the founder of the online progressive news source Rabble.ca, the word neatly describes the website’s mission. “The mainstream media presents the world from the perspective of the elites and we present the world from the perspective of the rabble,” said Judy Rebick. Rabble.ca fuses journalism and activism on a website that provides “news for the rest of us.” Dedicated to coverage of social and political causes, Rabble adapts traditional journalistic values of neutrality and detached observations, arguing for the place of activism in journalism. The site is a source for news and analysis that facilitates information sharing, networking and solidarity actions among political activists, wrote Rabble publisher Kim Elliott via e-mail. Rabble is upfront and unapologetic about its values of social justice.
Rebick believes that the rabble’s perspective has been ignored in the media for more than a decade. While working for the CBC in the mid-’90s as a columnist and a co-host on the political debate show Face Off, Rebick noticed a dramatic shift in the content of the news. She said that left wing views, movement news, progressive think tanks and the work of activists were all but ignored by the mainstream media. In 1998, the Council of Canadians organized an international protest that helped squash the Multilateral Agreement on Investments, stopping radical changes to regulations on international investment. The media largely ignored their fight Rebick said. She could not understand why a Canadian group with more than 100,000 members that led this influential movement did not get any media attention. For Rebick, it was yet another example of the elites in the mainstream media ignoring the perspective of the rabble. By 2000, Rebick decided that Canada needed an alternative news source that would feature under-reported or ignored issues and events. After an attempt to launch an independent national newspaper, Rebick came up with the idea for an online interactive website. The idea was similar to existing progressive news sites, such as Z Magazine Online, Alternet and the Canadian site Straight Goods. With the help of other journalists, activists, artists and writers, Rebick launched Rabble.ca on April 18, 2001, the day before the protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. On the site’s first day, it logged 40,000 hits. Today, Rabble is one the most popular sources for independent news in Canada. More than 300,000 unique visitors a month, meaning the number of computers that log on to the site, browse Rabble’s stories, columns, book reviews and podcasts. About 507,000 visitors log on to the online version of National Post each month, while The Globe and Mail’s online edition averages about 280,000 users every day. When Rebick was developing Rabble, focus groups made it clear that an interactive component to the site was important. This took the form of Babble, the site’s message board that features
hundreds of discussions in which readers can take part. Topics include Canadian politics for “Layton-Lovers and Harper-Harpies”, aboriginal issues and culture and environmental justice. Rabble is a not-for-profit organization and is kept afloat by donations, membership fees and some advertising revenue. Rabble has a small editorial staff and no paid writers. In March 2008, it ventured into the world of television and launched rabbletv, an on-line video channel. The site is a rotating playlist of alternative video, documentary films and event coverage of rallies and protests. Rabbletv is run entirely by volunteers, who use webcams to document and create their own footage. “We want rabbletv to turn television from a carefully guarded broadcast medium into a collaborative video conversation with a diversity of voices,” wrote Rabble columnist Wayne MacPhail. Unlike mainstream media outlets, Rabble doesn’t claim to be objective. While most journalists are required to refrain from political or community affairs to preserve their neutrality, Rabble’s readers, contributors and writers are encouraged to engage in political and community affairs, wrote Elliott. Many of Rabble’s staff members have an extensive background in activism. Before founding Rabble, Rebick was president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women from 1990 to 1993 and ran as an NDP candidate in the 1987 Ontario provincial election. Rabble is defined as progressive, meaning its content embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist and pro-labour stance. Articles and columns share a theme of social justice and Rabble tells stories through a progressive analysis, said Elliott. It also features an “In Cahoots” section that provides a portal to writing from non-governmental organizations and unions. “On Rabble, I find many voices ready to cry, ‘Hey, but look at the implications of this thing over here!’ that I might not otherwise have noticed. And I find them able to speak with compassion, humour, and energy about topics that seem to get a glazed-eye treatment in mainstream coverage,” said longtime Rabble reader Andrew Wetmore. The fusion of journalism and social activism within Rabble raises questions about the journalist’s credibility when the site openly supports a political or social goal.
Rebick used the French term, journaliste éngagé, to describe how Rabble writers report. “When you’re an activist you’re involved in an organization usually, you’re promoting a cause. When you’re an engaged journalist you take a stand, you take a side. You’re clear what your perspective is. (But) you don’t ignore the negative things,” Rebick said. Rebick refered to her coverage of the 2001 protests in Quebec City as an example of this difference.
Rebick said she reported it was a group of demonstrators that threw the first stone in the conflict between authorities and protestors, which gave context to the violent reaction of police. As an advocate she may not have conveyed this fact because it would have reflected negatively on the protesters. She said an activist would only report facts that would reflect positively on their cause. A background in activism also gives Rebick insight into protests that other journalists may not have, such as identifying agent provocateurs or the reasons why demonstrations can become violent she said.
But what about journalism’s tenet of objectivity? Kirsten Kozolanka, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communications at Carleton University, said that objectivity is a fairly recent principle of mainstream journalism that was developed in the 20th century. She said that the pursuit of objectivity or neutrality can do a disservice to readers. “If you’re a mainstream journalist and you produce what you think is a balanced story that usually means this perspective and that perspective, and the world isn’t usually divided into this and that. There are multiple perspectives and a lot is being left out. If you allot a certain amount of space in your story to this opinion and that opinion, you’re missing a lot to begin with and you’re not necessarily creating a balance,” Kozolanka said. She argued that alternative media such as Rabble are there to counter and improve mainstream accounts by exposing what they’ve missed.
Former Rabble intern and regular contributor, Tor Sandberg said that being both an activist and a journalist improved his ability to provide a context in stories that doesn’t exist in the mainstream media.
For example, Sandberg examined the media coverage of proposed tax packages in Toronto in an article he wrote for Rabble. The city proposed two new sets of taxes, a land transfer tax and an extra fee for car registration. He wrote that while supporters such as Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin praised the land transfer tax because it would affect developers and speculators more than homeowners, and the car registration fee for its positive effects on the environment, the overall media response was negative. He says that reports on the tax hikes did not examine why they might be necessary.
Sandberg uses CityTV as an example of this coverage. The station ran spots during commercial breaks that called it one of “Toronto’s biggest tax hikes ever” and featured a story on the negative effects of the land transfer tax on homeowners. The expert CityTV consulted on behalf of Toronto’s homeowners was a representative of the local real estate board, which represents real estate brokers and agents. Mainstream reporters are quick to quote lobby groups and politicians without delving further into a story, he said. Kozolanka agrees that activist journalists can be more effective at providing context to stories due to their close knowledge of the subjects they cover.
“Activists have subject areas, values and ideas that they want to promulgate, but they’re experts in those areas whereas a mainstream journalist might just be given the story assignment and take up the story for a day,” said Kozolanka. Sandberg says that being free of daily deadlines and time and space constraints improves his ability to tell the whole story. He says working for Rabble relieves him from the pressure of having to make his stories unnecessarily sensational.
The director of news content at the Chronicle Herald, Dan Leger doesn’t agree.
“Although we may have constraints on time and space in our newspaper, we don’t have constraints on telling the truth,” he said. Leger equates sites such as Rabble with biased political blogs or the overtly-right-wing Fox News, sources that only tell one side of the story.
To Leger, Rabble is a form of journalism for people who have already made up their minds on issues and events.
Leger believes that now more than ever, mainstream news sources are making an effort to feature a diverse and representative range of voices in the media. Graham Knight, a Sociology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. and an expert in the relationship between social activism and global corporations, said that independent sources such as Rabble excel at reporting stories ignored by mainstream news outlets amidst the growing consolidation of corporate-owned media.
However, Knight calls progressive sources such as Rabble “opinion journalism.” This means they are better at analyzing and interpreting events, as opposed to traditional journalism, which focuses on fact gathering and is a collection of hard news. Rabble represents more critical and oppositional voices instead of neutral reporting, Knight said.
Knight said that news sources such as Rabble are necessary for the broadening of perspectives in the field of journalism. Knight stresses the importance of consulting several news sources to incorporate as many perspectives as possible. “We can go to places like Rabble and take a look at their thoughts on Canada’s role in Afghanistan. Then I can go and look at the National Post and get a quite different take on Canada’s role in Afghanistan. At least then I can see what the different arguments are from the different perspectives,” says Knight. For Sandberg, Rabble should continue being unapologetic about its progressive perspective, because without it, the voice of the rabble remains unheard. “Rabble makes a concerted effort of representing the other side. It doesn’t play up its independence. It’s an alternative take on the media. When people criticize Rabble for being equally as unobjective, we understand that we’re not objective. We’re trying to provide the other side of the story because the mainstream media isn’t objective either.”