When do journalists turn into activists?

Glenn Greenwald bei der Keynote in Hamburg

Ist Glenn Greenwald, dem Edward Snowden die NSA-Dokumente zur Analyse und Veröffentlichung übergab, ein Journalist oder Aktivist?

Diese Frage wird seit seiner Keynote auf dem Hackerkongreß 30c3 unter Journalisten diskutiert.

Die Zeit Online-Kollegen Patrick Beuth und Kai Biermann kritisieren:

„Ihm geht es nicht nur darum, den Überwachungsskandal aufzudecken, er will eine Bewegung anführen. Er nennt sie „Pro-Privacy-Allianz“. (…)

Greenwald hat in seiner Rede eine Grenze überschritten, als er „wir“ sagte statt „ihr“. Er hat sich mit den anwesenden Hackern gemein gemacht, mit den Aktivisten und Bürgerrechtlern. Er sieht sich als einer von ihnen.“

Und sie stellen Fragen:

Ist es also überhaupt verwerflich, dass Greenwald selbst die Grenze zwischen Journalismus und Aktivismus nicht mehr klar zieht? Das ist eine Frage zur Zukunft des Journalismus: Braucht es mehr Meinung, mehr Position? Braucht es Journalisten, die auch jenseits ihrer Artikel und Berichte für etwas eintreten? Oder sollen Medien eher versuchen, so neutral wie möglich zu sein und anderen den Aktivismus überlassen?

Hier ist meine Sicht darauf, ausnahmsweise auf Englisch, damit auch Greenwald sie lesen kann (wenn er will):

In Germany journalists meet very strict requirements. „You should not make yourself common with a cause. Not even with a good one.“ This phrase taught in every journoschool is accredited to the famous news anchor Hans-Joachim Friedrichs.

Knew how to use the media and press: NSDAP mass rally in Sportpalast Berlin (1943(

Knew how to use the media and press: NSDAP mass rally in Sportpalast Berlin (1943(

Historical reasons

The reasons why Germany is so anxious about having neutral journalists are of course historical ones. After the experience of the Third Reich and it’s mass propanda the distrust in journalists and media needed to be overcome by setting high standards. (//UPDATE 29.1.13: Reader „Erbloggtes“ wrote a comment worth reading on this, see below. I am obviously not well informed on this topic. Mea culpa.//)

But of course there has never been neutral journalism and there never will be. Journalists are human beings, each raised and socialised under their very unique circumstances, each having developed his/her own point of view from this.

Even if we try to be as neutral as possible, journalism itself is always subjective by deciding which topics are relevant enough to be covered, which quotes are to be mentioned, which pieces of information will be published.

And still journalists are not activists. I tried to draw the line between these two profession as follows:

Journalists do..

gather opinions, information, views, hear both sides, try to uncover what other people want to cover up, give voice to people without voice, go where noone else dares or wants to go, initiate debates, moderate debates, make up their mind with the help of arguments and make their views transparent, always willing to change them if new pieces of information occur, trying to influence political decision-making processes by uncovering lies, spins or campaigns by politicians or interest groups.

Activist do…

fight for a cause no matter what, are totally convinced their cause is „good“, try to actively ignitiate and lead debattes, conviced to „win“ them, gather info and arguments that support their cause, try to smash the arguments of the other side, try to actively influence political decision-making processes by creating (media) campaigns, demonstrations, etc.

Especially investigative journalism has a lot in common with activism, which makes it so hard to differ. It is the fight for the „truth“ and a „better, just society“ that is steadily blurrying the line between them.

Both forms are active ones, the activists creating campaigns, the investigative journalist actively trying to dig out knowledge other parties don’t want to see published.

Neutral investigative journalists doesn’t exist

The investigative journalist is leaving the field of „news reporting as neutral as possible“ and is himself becoming a person of media interest, a player in the game of society, no longer reporting on things other people have found out but finding out things by himself. Fighting this fight all by himself is pretty harsh, so finding allies can be crucial to carry on.

Especially if you are trying to uncover things concerning secret services and state affairs you might be under constant pressure from groups far more powerful than any news organisation. So I didn’t find it pretty surprising that Glenn Greenwald referred to „us“ in his keynote rather than using „you“ when he spoke to the audience of 30C3.

Does this inevitably make him an activist? Does his work on the NSA papers make him one?


In my opinion a journalist stopps being a journo and starts becoming an activist when he stopps questioning himself, his work, his findings and his allies. When he is actively being involved in campaigns and the internal affairs of interest groups, no longer able to publicly critize them or disagreeing with them. When he has to stick to a policital agenda rather than to his own beliefs, findings or opinions.

But even by trying to differ between journalists and activists there are cases in which it is very hard to draw a line – Greenwald may be one of these cases.

So the question remains: is it okay for a journalist to become an activist or at least to behave like one?

Yes. And No. In my eyes it is necessary for any journalist to have a mindset of his/her own, in german: Haltung haben. This mindset should have been formed by weighing the pros and cons of a topic uninfluenced by any external power. The mindset also may be undecided, especially if it comes to difficult topics.

„Haltung“ has to be transparent

This mindset, any „Haltung“ a journalist has should be made transparent and public to his audience so he/she knows where he/she is standing and why.

But having a mindset doesn`t automatically turn a journalist into an activist. Activism means to me: organizing protests, campains or groups, calls to sign petitions, writing pamphlets, lobbying secretly or openly by trying to influence decision-makers or even trying to put them under pressure by threatening them with negative consequences if their decision is not suitable.

To give an example: Journalists should not put up banners on companies they are critizing neither should they organize a rally against them. They do research, they gather information and publish them so the public may or may not take action.

Any journalist who turns activist is free to do so. But he/she puts his credibilty at risk that he/she did not surpress arguments, evidence or views he/she did not like or which could have endangered his/her cause.

In other words: Can I trust a journalist turned activist that he/she is telling me everything he/she knows or thinks is needed to make up my own mind?

This has to be decided individually and by everyone for him- or herself. But it is something that any journalist has to consider when taking actions other than publishing articles, films or journalistic works alike.

Read more:

Long dialogue between NYTs Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald on the topic. Must read. –

Ole Reissmann (Spiegel Online) thinks, any journalist has a right to have a mindset of his/her own, but I think he is mistaking „mindset“ with „activism“.

FAZ thinks, Greenwald is asking the right questions, but doesn’t answer the most important question.

storify of the twitter debatte between Zeit Online’s Kai Biermann, Glenn Greenwald and others

carta links to a video of a debatte about how engaged or neutral journalism should be (german)

metronat is okay with journalist being actistic as long as they are transparent about what they do

Neues Deutschland thinks it is becoming more and more important for journalism to be self-reflective

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