Here’s why journalists are more than just ‘woke’ armchair activists |

journalism 2020
Photo by Judit Peter from Pexels

by Bhawna Sharma

To write is to make a statement. And to make a statement is to start a difficult conversation, challenge beliefs, and take a stand. What was once mightier than the sword, however, is now mired with accusations of propaganda, sensationalism, and jingoism. The final nail in the coffin is the caricaturisation of journalists as ‘woke’ armchair activists who write about serious issues without offering any substantive solutions.

While it is convenient to dismiss journalists as mere mouthpieces, we forget that their main responsibility to inform and educate people—proposing concrete solutions is more suited to specialists, public policy officials, think tanks, economists, and other such civil society actors. Moreover, we should not (and must not) forget the might of the written word during history’s most pivotal moments.

When journalism revolutionised revolutions

The earliest form of journalism can be traced back to pamphlets, which were created explicitly for the purpose of penetrating the masses. Light, portable, and democratic, pamphlets were a hallmark of the American Revolution.

In 1766, for instance, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense became a flaming credo for American independence, and galvanised citizens and the political elite alike to unite against British rule. Selling more than 150,000 copies, the fifty-page pamphlet put forth canonical arguments about the nature of men and governments, appealing to the clergy, farmer, and housewife. Paine would later use his erudite prose and principles to pen America’s Declaration of Independence, heralding a new era of self-governance and sovereignty.

Similarly, Bethany Mcklean’s seminal Is Enron Overpriced? (2001) article which appeared in Forbes was the first of its kind to question Enron’s obscure accounting practices and business model. It would prompt journalists and analysts to take a closer look at the company and ultimately reveal its complex, multi-million dollar machination to scam investors.

Paine and Mcklean may not have offered full-proof solutions for their causes, but what they did was even more remarkable: they questioned and challenged some of the most sacred ideas of their times.

Journalism today: polarised but not a polariser

Since the rubble of WWII, journalism has grown into a dizzying patchwork of news outlets, round-the-clock content, and enterprising writers. Even then, words like libertarian, right-wing, left-wing, republican, and democrat seem to befuddle the common man, exposing the polarised world of journalism.

Between the rabble of opinions, though, lies a pasture in which journalism is not a polariser, but an illuminator. When we react to journalists, we are unknowingly confronting our own in-built biases and opinions, the process of which opens up profound discussions about ourselves.

That is why, for example, Megan K. Stack’s NYT op-ed on Singapore’s dark side following a surge in coronavirus cases set off a series of heated debates about how the West perceives Singapore. So triggered was one Singaporean that he wrote a sixteen-minute rebuttal read on Medium which garnered over six-thousand views. Even though Stack’s piece was written from the cushiony scaffolding of an American expat, it compelled Singaporeans to look into themselves and reflect on the nation’s narrative. We may accuse Stack of being yet another woke armchair journalist, but if we choose to argue back, it’s because we care

Reform and accountability amidst pessimism

Journalism is in the middle of a major upheaval – an upheaval for more credible, informed, and thoughtful news. Indeed, there are reasons to be pessimistic – the most pressing being the media’s tendency to compromise accuracy at the expense of viewership.

Recently, for instance, a local student who contracted COVID-19 in the UK has hit back at CNA for manipulating and sensationalising the information gathered from an interview with him.

A Facebook story screenshot from Daviest Ong
Change in title by CNA

As with any industry, journalism is a work-in-progress, always evolving and learning in an ecosystem intimately intertwined with the public. But before lambasting and attacking journalists for weak and misinformed insights, we should engage their thoughts and opinions more perceptively while acknowledging our own biases and ideological reconciliations. As American journalist Carl Bernstein sums up perfectly, good journalism should challenge people, not just mindlessly amuse them.