Laura Poitras, one of the journalists who broke the Edward Snowden story, is portrayed in the NYT Magazine this week. It’s a long read, but one passing comment toward the end grabbed me:

Poitras… disagrees with the suggestion that their work amounts to advocacy by partisan reporters. “Yes, I have opinions,” she told me. “Do I think the surveillance state is out of control? Yes, I do. This is scary, and people should be scared. A shadow and secret government has grown and grown, all in the name of national security and without the oversight or national debate that one would think a democracy would have. It’s not advocacy. We have documents that substantiate it.”

As I read it, Poitras sees the difference between her brand of journalism and outright advocacy is documentary support in the former.

This distinction didn’t ring true for me. I spent a long time in the advocacy racket, processing documents every day to substantiate an agenda. Advocates that didn’t do the same would not have much success.

How did my work differ from journalism, if at all?

On the one hand, my advocacy had a clear point of view – whereas most journalists did not have an explicit point of view. However, any systematic content analysis of reporting (as I attempted to conduct here) would show that reporters tended to favor certain points of view. So not too much difference in practice.

In fact, I see the differences between advocacy and journalism (at least as they are practiced in 2013) as exactly the opposite of those suggested by Poitras. The difference between my work and the work of most journalists that I came into contact with was a much deeper reliance on documentation on my part. Especially in DC, journalists make selective use of spin from various sources to weave together a story – rarely pushing beyond that. This was probably due to some combination of lack of will and lack of time.

Maybe the major distinction is not between advocacy and journalism, but between “web aggregator” journalism and deep investigative reporting a la Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. Advocates can – depending on their rigor – fall on this spectrum as well.

Well-done advocacy and well-done investigative journalism are not that different in terms of their acknowledgement of perspective and use of documentation. The major difference seems to be that advocates are always in a debate about the costs and benefits of their means relative to their ends. From the lengths that Poitras and company go to to hide their own tracks, I’m guessing that they see the means as an end in themselves. The privately waged war for privacy, whatever inconvenience it may entail to try to keep one’s own communications private.

Similar debates about what constitutes good research brew in academia. Quantitative work is typically seen as more rigorous than qualitative work. But the abstractions in econometrics aren’t always well grounded in the phenomenon they are trying to study. Indeed, some academics torture quantitative data until it confesses (to paraphrase the economist Ronald Coase).

In contrast, qualitative work (especially of the grounded theory variety) don’t reach any conclusion unless it stems directly from the phenomenon they are studying. But, this opens up the method to more so-called “investigator bias”, since what a researcher is “seeing” in the data may simply reflect their own conceptions of the world. Good qualitative methods, however, give researchers a host of tools to check their biases.

In my own work, I am using qualitative and quantitative methods to study international legal processes. This brings me into the orbit of yet another type of research: “legal academic” work. Lawyering is about selectively stringing together facts to win arguments, and much legal academic work is about citing as many “authorities” as one can find for a point of view one outlined in advance. This is quite a bit like advocacy, although it privileges law sources over other types of evidence. Non-legal academics  advocates are more omnivorous about their sources.

In short, I was once the type of advocate relying on documents that Poitras seems to dismiss but didn’t understand. Now, bits of advocacy constitute the documents I study. I wish someone would wikileak me my dissertation already, because my head hurts from all this meta.

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