New York Times writer (and now Howard University Journalism Professor) Nikole Hannah-Jones, went public this week with a call for journalists not to cover shoplifting crimes, even criticizing MSNBC’s Al Sharpton for his discussion of a viral video of a man who recently stole steaks from a New York City Trader Joe’s. Hannah-Jones is a leading voice for advocacy journalism and her public criticism of the coverage of the rise in shoplifting vividly shows what such journalism means for the profession.
The MSNBC segment addressed a video of a man who casually walked out of the store with a stack of steaks:
After that video, the store was hit again by a man who shoplifted and insisted in an interview that it was entirely appropriate to do so.
Hannah-Jones objected to MSNBC covering the story because it could support efforts to increase policing and prosecution: “This drumbeat for continued mass incarceration is really horrific to watch. A person stealing steak is not national news, and there have always been thefts from stores. This is how you legitimize the carceral state.”
It was advocacy journalism in full display.
We have been discussing the rise of advocacy journalism and the rejection of objectivity in journalism schools. Writers, editors, commentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including President-elect Joe Biden and his key advisers. This movement includes academics rejecting the very concept of objectivity in journalism in favor of open advocacy.
Columbia Journalism Dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll has denounced how the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect disinformation. In an interview with The Stanford Daily, Stanford journalism professor, Ted Glasser, insisted that journalism needed to “free itself from this notion of objectivity to develop a sense of social justice.” He rejected the notion that the journalism is based on objectivity and said that he views “journalists as activists because journalism at its best — and indeed history at its best — is all about morality.” Thus, “Journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity.”
Here Hannah-Jones is demonstrating how such advocacy journalism works. There is no question that there is a sharp rise in shoplifting across America, a trend that has resulted in the closing of stores in some cities. As I have previously written, this is due to a lack of deterrence in major cities where prosecution is rare for such crimes and many stores do not even bother calling the police. Even in liberal states like California, politicians have been compelled to establish task forces to combat retail theft. Various Democratic politicians have decried the rising crime trend.
That would seem news. It impacts average citizens with the closure of stores and increase prices due theft. However, by covering the story, Hannah-Jones objects that reporters are working against social justice. She has previously declared that “all journalism is activism.” In this case, she would have media bury such stories because that is not the narrative that she wants viewers to hear.
While Hannah-Jones’ view of journalism is opposed by many viewers, it is in vogue in journalism schools. Indeed, UNC Journalism and Media Dean Susan King fought to give a chair to Hannah-Jones and, in another example of advocacy journalism, even pressured a journalist to frame coverage to help that cause.
The impact of such advocacy journalism is evident in every poll where the faith in the media has plummeted. Indeed, the “Let’s Go Brandon” movement is as much a criticism of the media as it is President Biden. The United States ranked dead last in media trust among 49 countries with just 29% saying that they trusted the media.