Good Advocacy Journalism - Liberation on the Right to Die

What the weak head with strongest bias rules, Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, (1711) line 203.

Regular readers of these columns will discern my disdain for advocacy journalism. It is part of my personal catalogue of the seven deadly sins. Let us tick them off according to Pope Gregory I’s list: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. Advocacy journalism is the reporter’s particular sin of pride.

But I do not want to dismiss this style out of hand for there are many examples of excellent opinion-centered news articles. A recent story on euthanasia from the French daily Libération is an example of how to do advocacy journalism well.

But first let us define our terms. In a recent article, TMatt described the clash of ideologies between the classical school of Anglo-American reporting, and the older but now revived school of advocacy reporting.

When I say "old-school journalism," I am referring to what textbooks often call the "American model of the press," which stresses that journalists should strive to honor standards of accuracy, fairness and balance when covering the news. The key: When reporting on hot-button issues, journalists should strive to treat people on all sides of these debates with respect.

This classically liberal approach to news emerged, and evolved, in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The goal was to produce news that was as independent as possible, thus exposing readers to genuine diversity. Citizens could then make up their own minds.

An older, advocacy model built on clear editorial biases – often called the "European model" – has remained a crucial part of modern journalism, primarily in magazines and journals of opinion (think The Nation, National Review, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard).

The classical school dominated mainstream reporting in the Anglosphere from the first third of the Twentieth Century. While there were lapses most mainstream newspapers sought to keep opinions on the editorial pages -- that is what made them “mainstream”.

This tradition never quite took hold in Europe, where newspapers were often tied to political parties, labor movements, or ideological causes. The French daily Libération, also know as Libé,  was founded in 1973 in the wake of the May 1968 political protests by . Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge July

Until 1980 the paper took no paid advertising, with even its classified ads printed without charge. Freed from these constraints, it developed a vibrant sometimes flamboyant journalistic style and became a force on the French left. The changing newspaper market forced it to change its advertising policy, but the newspaper’s voice is recognizable as that of the center-left -- between the Communist papers and the Socialist Party papers. When you purchase Libé you know what your are getting. And it is often quite good -- even for an unrepentant devotee of classical journalism.

On Sept 13 the paper ran a story entitled: « Anne Bert, mourir sans souffrir, le droit de choisir » that reported on the decision by French novelist Anne Bert to travel to Belgium to undergo euthanasia during the last stages of ALS, or as it is called in France, Charcot’s Disease.

The article is sympathetic to Bert’s plight, opening with a description of her illness and then reminding readers that in April Bert wrote an open letter to the French presidential candidates urging them to reform the current laws on Euthanasia.

« Décider d’abréger ma fin de vie plutôt que de végéter emmurée avant de mourir est un choix éclairé en accord avec ma vision de l’existence. Je le fais dans un état d’esprit lucide, et qui m’apporte un peu d’apaisement. »

“Deciding to hasten the end of my life rather than being walled up in a vegetative state before dying is an enlightened choice in keeping with my vision of existence. I do it in a lucid state of mind, and that brings me a little calm.”

Libé updates its readers on Bert’s condition, and then frames the issues in this paragraph:

 En France, quand des malades atteints de la maladie de Charcot sont en fin de vie, on se retrouve dans une zone grise. La loi Claeys-Leonetti de février 2016, qui permet pourtant une «sédation terminale», ne paraît pas satisfaisante pour répondre à ces situations. La personne est laissée souvent seule et dans les faits, cela dépend des équipes et des moments. Certains médecins vont aider leurs patients SLA, d’autres non. Beaucoup de malades, en tout cas, font face à l’arbitraire, devant des médecins qui souvent leur répètent : «Oui, je vous comprends, mais je ne peux pas vous aider.»

In France, when patients with Charcot's disease are at the end of their lives they find themselves in a gray area. The Claeys-Leonetti law of February 2016, which allows "terminal sedation", does not seem a satisfactory response to these situations. The person is often left alone and in fact it depends on the teams and the times, (the desires of others) .  Some doctors will help their ALS patients, others will not. In any case many patients receive arbitrary responses from doctors who often tell them: "Yes, I understand you, but I can not help you."

The article from start to finish is sympathetic to Bert’s plight and outraged the current state of French law prevents her from taking her own life in light of her condition. No counter arguments are presented from life-advocates, nor is the background or context of the Claeys-Leonetti law described. The authorial voice in this story assumes the reader is in full agreement with the course of action advocated in the story.

Yet, what saves this being a mere press release outlining the views of a distinguished advocate for euthanasia, are the closing paragraphs. Without surrendering the ground its has established in the first 600 words, the article opens up the moral high ground first with a closing quote from Bert.

… Ce qu’elle veut, c’est donc la liberté de choisir : «Quand il n’y a plus aucun espoir, demander à bénéficier de soins palliatifs ou demander à bénéficier d’une aide active à mourir doivent coexister et cohabiter. … .»

What she wants is freedom to choose: “When there is no hope, asking for palliative care or asking to receive active help to die must coexist, they must live side by side."

Then with Libé’s editorial voice and a closing quote.

Anne Bert a raison : la loi Claeys-Leonetti n’a pas résolu d’un coup la question de la fin de vie médicalisée. Puis, elle nous raconte cette histoire : «Je communique depuis le mois de mars avec un jeune homme atteint de la même maladie que la mienne, qui est désormais grabataire. Il est très croyant, il a une petite fille, il a fait le choix inverse au mien, nous sommes dans la controverse intelligente et tolérante, il me dit qu’il craint que je ne sois dangereusement contagieuse à rendre mon choix public et à demander une loi. A force d’explication, il comprend et nous continuons à échanger, encore ce matin, ce qui me fait dire que de façon fraternelle nous pouvons accepter que les uns et les autres décident différemment de leur vie, dans la légalité, et ce n’est qu’à force de rendre audible cela que les mentalités finiront par changer, et que les pouvoirs occultes des puissants seront vaincus. Voilà sans doute ce que je peux encore dire. Ouvrir le débat publiquement me soulage des messages insistants m’affirmant que Dieu ou le curcuma vont me soigner et me sauver.» Anne Bert est ainsi : elle souhaite que chacun ait le choix, simplement.

Anne Bert is right: the law Claeys-Leonetti did not solve the issue of the end of medical life. Then she tells us this story: "I have been communicating since March with a young man suffering from the same illness as mine who is now bedridden. He is very believing [a Catholic], He has a little girl. He has made the opposite choice to mine. We are in intelligent and tolerant disagreement. By dint of explanation, he recognizes my position and we continue to exchange correspondence, as recently as this morning. Fraternally we can accept that both of us will make different choices for our lives. However, the legal issue is that by making public these issues our ways of thinking will eventually change, and that the unseen powers of the establishment will be defeated. That's probably what I can say. Opening up the debate publicly relieves me of the insistent messages that God or herbal remedies are going to heal me and save me." Anne Bert is like this: she wants everyone to have a choice.

By introducing the contrast of the Catholic man also living with ALS, through the quote from Bert, the story is rescued from propagandizing and sentimentality. Libé maintains the pro-euthanasia high ground throughout the story, cloaking it in arguments that “everyone” should have a “choice”, but also recognizing there are principled arguments held by other Frenchmen that this choice is immoral and would lead to bad public policy outcomes.

According to its terms, the story about Anne Bert’s choice to end her life, is a well written, thoughtful piece that advances the cause of euthanasia. This is European style journalism at its best -- where it differs from the classical Anglo-American school is that the correctness of the issue is central to the integrity of the story. The facts are used to support or add color and contrast to the theme. A classical news story, would sufficient facts so as to allow the reader to come to their own conclusionsThe difficulty comes when classical news outlets resort to advocacy journalism -- and compound the issue by not being aware that they are engaged in advocacy reporting, or denying that they have crossed the line. And here is where the sin of pride comes in -- the moral of the story -- substituting the public’s right to know with the reporter’s belief what “they” should know.

NewsGeorge Conger