When 'activist' is used as a weapon

We should pay more attention to the word “activist” and how it is used in the news, because those three syllables have a lot of power.

Certainly, there are occasions when “activist” is an appropriate way to identify a participant in an article. Often, though, identifying someone as an “activist” is a subtle but effective way to degrade the person you are quoting and their perspective by erasing credentials and professional expertise.

Here’s a recent example. I’m a journalist who left full-time reporting a few years back to work in communications at the Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal organization based in Philadelphia. In that capacity, a local reporter contacted me seeking my executive director’s take on a controversial open letter.

The letter was authored by an advocacy organization called Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), and called for an end to victim-centered and trauma-informed investigations of sexual assault. The letter was of interest to the reporter because SAVE has been categorized  as a misogynist site by the Southern Poverty Law Center and because many signees are local.

The reporter also interviewed a trauma expert, who predictably disagreed with the premise that disregarding decades of trauma research would improve how we investigate and adjudicate sexual assault.

It was a fine story by a good reporter. Then I saw this tweet teasing the story:

The “activist” in question is Dr. Sandra Bloom, a Drexel University associate professor of health management and policy and past president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. (Bloom is identified by her credentials in the story itself.)

To review, attorneys and professors who took an explicitly activist action by signing a public letter authored by an organization advocated for specific goals retained their bona fides and professional credentials, but the trauma expert was identified as an "activist," even though she did nothing more than answer a reporter’s inquiry, review material upon request, and share her expert opinion.

Of course, I’m not the first person to observe how the word “activist” can be weaponized in the news.

“I've often been called an ‘activist’ when I do TV or radio news, [even] when I have told them to identify me as a media critic/journalist,” says Jennifer Pozner, longtime media critic and author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV." “It always ticks me off when I am called an ‘activist’ alongside men who are allowed to be called ‘journalist’ or ‘media critic.’”

When that happens, Pozner sees the insistence on labeling her an activist as “an intentional way to delegitimize” her participation.

Imani Gandy is an attorney, journalist and senior legal analyst at Rewire News. She says she was recently identified as an activist in an article that was citing her work. (It was later corrected.)

“I think a lot of times women journalists are called activists to belittle our professional expertise and to ding us for having opinions,” says Gandy. “Especially by conservatives who view activists as emotional and unserious, and therefore want to couch women journalists — especially those who write about women’s issues — as emotional and unserious.”

While these reasons alone are serious enough to warrant reconsidering how we use the word “activist,” erasing the bona fides of journalists is particularly troubling because as the late David Carr noted, the law grants journalists special protections.

“To exclude some writers from the profession is to leave them naked before a government that is deeply unhappy that its secret business is on wide display,” wrote Carr. “In that context, ‘activist’ has become a code word for someone who is driven by an agenda beyond seeking information on the public’s behalf.”

Indeed, the meaning of activist shifts through time and context.

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer formerly with Merriam-Webster and author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.”

According to Stamper, the word “activist” first appeared in written English in the early 1900s. Back then, “activism” referred to a philosophy of truth, so an “activist” meant someone who strove for the spiritual life in thought and action.

“By the 1910s, however, both the adjective and the noun ‘activist’ were being used to refer to pro-German elements in Europe during World War I, especially Belgian collaborators with Germany or those who advocated that Sweden abandon its policy of neutrality,” explains Stamper.

“Activist” entered common usage in the late 1950s and ‘60s, marking the rise of civil rights and feminist movements.  According to Stamper, the negative connotation of the word’s association with Communism and Nazis carried into newer uses, then relaxed a bit by the 1970s in part because the word became so common.

The negative connotation roared back in the 1980s. Here’s where Stamper’s analysis dovetails with Gandy’s observation. “[In the 1980s], there were more negative op-eds, mostly from the right, about ‘activists.’ William Buckley Jr. wrote an essay in 1985 on ‘peace activists’ that set the tone for most modern critiques of activism.”

The essay in question ridicules the 29 Americans captured in Nicaragua while representing an organization called “Americans for Peace” for calling themselves peace activists.

“Is a peace activist a pacifist? Certainly not,” wrote Buckley Jr., before suggesting he was a peace activist because his taxes help fund the American military, which he viewed as keeping world peace. In another essay written the same year, Buckley Jr. waxed philosophical about his reluctance to identify as an activist himself: He decided writing about his support for legalizing drugs (then mounting campaigns against their use) did not make him an activist, but going on public television to defend his stance would convert him into one.

More from Stamper: “A widely syndicated column by Raymond Coffey in 1987 reinforced the message about modern activists: they’re whiny, ineffective, misguided, hypocritical, blind to nuance, and generally obnoxious. Considering that the 1980s saw a huge rise in gay rights, AIDS, and pro-choice activists, and that the Moral Majority was formed in part to counteract the cultural and therefore political influence of these groups, it’s not surprising that the negative connotations of ‘activist’ were renewed and reshaped.”

Surely, weaponizing the word “activist” could reveal a reporter’s (or publication’s) bias against a particular story participant or their point of view.

But there’s another explanation that is simpler but harder to fix. In an era where journalism hasn’t fully matured out of quaint, outdated notions of objectivity that prioritizes framing controversy over evidence-based explanation, misuse of the word “activist” can reveal the most insidious journalistic bias of all: Journalism that elevates and defends the status quo by systematically denigrating anyone challenging it.

  • Profile picture for user Tara Murtha

    Tara Murtha

    Tara Murtha is a freelance writer and associate director of strategic communications at the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia. She earned Distinguished Writer three years in a row from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

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