The Orwell Method: Journalistic Advocacy as a Response to Political Extremism
by Malone Mullin, 2023 Journalism Fellow
As battle broke out in Madrid on an evening just before Christmas 1936, English author Eric Arthur Blair–better known by his pseudonym, George Orwell–packed a bag and headed for the continent. "I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do,” Orwell writes in his 1938 memoir, Homage to Catalonia.1 He would end up fighting alongside one of Spain’s communist militias, embodying perhaps the strongest journalistic bias possible: picking up arms, choosing a side, and going to war.
By today’s standards, the Orwell case is an extreme example of how journalists can, and perhaps even should, become advocates and maintain a bias in their reporting. We hear regularly about the need for objectivity in reporting. There is truth to this notion, of course.
In Orwell’s story and experiences during the Spanish Civil War, we see, however, a more pertinent need: an alternative set of ethical principles of journalistic bias suited to the mores of the 21st century.
The Principle of Objectivity
By the time he left England for Spain, Orwell had written two novels and one work of reportage. He was not yet known as a journalist but said he had every intention of becoming one by reporting on the Nationalist leader Francisco Franco’s coup against the Spanish Republicans. In his day, European newspapers weren’t expected to cater to all ideologies; they were often bankrolled by specific political parties, and their reporters wrote with obvious slants. Today, while it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that The Guardian is a leftist publication, the New York Times centrist, and Fox News defined by a special brand of American neoconservatism, these outlets don’t outright brand themselves by their political leanings. Their journalists are largely expected to abide by a long-held principle of ideological neutrality. Take this rule outlined in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Journalistic Standards and Practices as one example of the status quo: “We are guided by the principle of impartiality […] CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.”2 In its own code of conduct, the New York Times propounds a similar line: “No newsroom or opinion employee may do anything that damages The Times’s reputation for strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government.”3
Objectivity in journalism had its birth in the early 1900s. By 1911, Charles G. Ross says, “News writing is objective to the last degree in the sense that the writer is not allowed to ‘editorialize.’”4 The rule hung around for a few decades as an ideal that all reporters should strive for: removing themselves from the story, covering without bias or opinion merely what occurs and is said. This view gripped the media world for good reason. The function of impartiality is integrity, after all. If an outlet presents facts instead of arguments, the reader is left to decide for themselves what they make of what’s happening around them. It arose, argues Stephen Ward in The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond, as a response to yellow journalism and accusations of unprofessionalism within the trade and quickly became part of journalistic doctrine. “To “editorialize” was the reporter’s mortal sin […] The ideal was complete detachment from events,”5 he notes. “Soon after 1900, when journalists sought evidence of their professionalism, they did not turn to the norms of subjectivity that governed opinion-making–wit, satire, and persuasive rhetoric. They pointed to forms of journalism that embodied the objective norms of fairness, balance, impartiality, and verified facts.”
That norm, even though it remains a standard, accepted rule for how journalism is done, is often challenged, sometimes within the same pages that boldly espouse it. That conflict demands our attention. Perhaps, then, aiming for impartiality might be the wrong way to go about reporting after all.
The Missed Ideal
In September 2016, the New York Times ran a stark editorial pleading with American voters. “Why Donald Trump Should Not Be President” took a decisive stand against the man who would later lead the country for four years.6 It’s not the only time the paper has rejected impartiality; on the contrary, it’s a regular occurrence for the Times’ editorial board, which has vocally backed the presidential candidate of their choosing for every election dating back to 1860.7
That habit raises a question: why chase the ideal of neutrality and objectivity at all if editors and journalists espouse their political endorsements openly? Further, it’s clear journalists exercise their biases, whether purposefully or not, in any given story; framing, quote selection, which sources one chases, which statistics are relevant enough to publish, and even the structure of the piece all constitute subjective, partial decisions. All these actions influence what the audience learns and which opinions they might form. Isn’t it more honest, less manipulative, to outwardly advocate, to plainly state rather than write between the lines?
In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell argues foreign journalists kept getting things wrong because they weren’t embedded in the war like he was. By contrast, he was able to observe events as they happened without relying on questionable sources. “Foreign journalists in Spain were hopelessly at the mercy of the Ministry of Propaganda, though one would think that the very name of this ministry would be a sufficient warning,” Orwell writes. “Nearly all the newspaper accounts published at the time were manufactured by journalists at a distance and were not only inaccurate in their facts but intentionally misleading. As usual, only one side of the question has been allowed to get to the wider public […] I saw only what was happening in my immediate neighbourhood, but I saw and heard quite enough to be able to contradict many of the lies that have been circulated.”
Throughout his book, Orwell remains critical of everything around him even as he is frank about his politics. If the goal is truth, then the ethical decision by this standard is to embed oneself in the war, to live the life of a soldier fighting fascism. In his case, the result of such a bold decision is a book that still maintains independence. It’s clearly not propaganda, and indeed it speaks critically against politically motivated misdirection. Fighting against Franco and speaking truthfully were not, it seems, at odds.
Modern journalism must contend with the logical inconsistency at the very core of its ethics. On the one hand, we chase an ideal of producing factual reports devoid of opinion or personal bias. On the other, news outlets and reporters intentionally take political positions, whether overtly or by writing between the lines.
With this in mind, it’s worth looking at another of Orwell’s works to figure out how we can resolve that conflict. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” he examines the role of language as a propaganda tool, particularly as it pertains to obfuscation and euphemism. “Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties,”8 he writes. “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
Orwell offers us a solution to the problem of objectivity within his own oeuvre. He takes a side but clearly and boldly indicates when he does so. He observes but tells the reader about the limitations of his knowledge. He cites his sources and tells us when he may doubt them. His reporting is subjective but honest, a reflection of the world as he saw it rather than an attempt to define an event by removing himself from the work. Throughout Homage to Catalonia, his commentary stands out, demarcated from his observations and sourcing. Because we know about his political leanings (since he’s been so clear about it from the start) we are also free to judge how his observations may be filtered through and influenced by his biases.
There’s another point I’d like to make: aside from the practical benefits of Orwell’s brand of non-objectivity, the application of this ethic could also be useful for reporters who wish to uphold humanistic values in their work. Orwell’s advocacy against fascism meant he wasn’t beholden to fascist regimes for information that he then disseminated to the public. He took a side, but that effectively gave him independence, the freedom to report from the ground rather than repeat what Franco’s party wanted the media to say. In such extreme environments, it may be more useful–and perhaps moral–for journalists to reject the doctrine of objectivity, to pick a side, and to be frank about it. That leaves us with a revised principle: Rather than striving to avoid bias at all costs, journalists can, and indeed sometimes should, make arguments for specific causes within their reporting, if and only if they can 1) base their arguments on fact and 2) be transparent that they’re advocating for a particular cause. At a time when neoNazism is rising in the West, and when far-right ideas are gaining strongholds in democracies around the world, perhaps it’s time we take a note from Orwell, embracing our biases rather than obscuring them.
Malone Mullin was a 2023 FASPE Journalism Fellow. She is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.
- Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. Project Gutenberg, https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0201111h.html.
- Ross, Charles G. The Writing of News: A Handbook. Henry and Holt, 1911, https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/59791
- A., Ward Stephen J. The Invention of Journalism Ethics the Path to Objectivity and Beyond. McGillQueen’s University Press, 2015.
- Editorial Board. “Why Donald Trump Should Not Be President.” The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2016.
- Editorial Board. “New York Times Endorsements Through the Ages” The New York Times, 23 Sept. 2016.
- Orwell, George. Politics and the English Language. The Orwell Foundation, 1946.