Surf your way to the U.K.-based Guardian‘s “10:10” virtual newsroom and you’ll find a broad menu of climate change-related stories.

Reports scolding greenwashers; profiles of energy-saving pioneers; an update on butterfly migration and changing seasonal weather. In short, items that might fit comfortably on the pages of conventional “objective” news-gathering organizations.

But there’s a catch. “10:10” is the media arm of a wider social campaign.

As editor Ian Katz put it in his column launching the initiative, “The idea is compellingly simple: by signing up, individuals and organisations from multinational companies to schools and hospitals commit to doing their best to cut their emissions by 10 percent by the end of 2010, precisely the sort of deep, quick cut the scientists say is needed.”

Included in the ranks of the 10:10 effort is everyone from Microsoft U.K. and Peagreen PR to Redcliffe Homes and Hadley’s Fish Restaurant, according to the wider 10:10 campaign site.

Transparency … but a ‘Contentious Journalistic Premise’?

Though the Guardian‘s effort deserves credit for transparency, it operates on a contentious premise.

The premise goes roughly as follows: reductions in emissions are an indisputable good, and therefore the press can comfortably campaign to promote that good. To put it in American terms, it’s on the same moral plane as the “Fresh Air Fund” and cancer prevention and awareness.

In an e-mail interview with The Yale Forum, Katz said the Guardian has a long tradition of playing a role in its own stories. It’s a tradition that is at stark odds with the long-held (but fading?) U.S. media tradition of either observing or participating … but not both.

The Guardian in its news section has sued the British Crown for stricter church-state lines; campaigned for cheaper medications for the developing world; and crusaded against corporate tax avoidance. The list could go on.

Climate: ‘If Ever A Subject’ Demanding News Advocacy?

“… [I]f ever there was a subject that demanded that newspapers get into the business of advocacy as well as reporting, then surely climate change is it,” Katz said. “For years we have been telling our readers how we are headed for disaster unless we take drastic action; it seems incumbent on us now to help our readers take – or at least promote – that action.”

Katz said there has been no pushback from any would-be U.K. press purists. In an ironic twist, he noted that the biggest challenge ahead is for the campaign to “establish its independence from the Guardian a bit more clearly.”

Of course, it is impossible to say precisely how the Guardian‘s actual news reporting or journalism might be affected. As anyone who has been in a newsroom knows, the issue of bias often comes down to subtle, small choices by editors and reporters.

But suffice it to say, from the Guardian‘s 10:10 page there is no firewall preventing a reader from quickly clicking through to the “Money” or “Business” sections – and no labeling to distinguish “10:10”-endorsed articles from those that are not part of the initiative. It’s all part of a single and indistinguishable media whole.

The idea of the activist news source is certainly no stranger to the new media world, with the environmental world being no exception. Grist, Treehugger, and the like all operate by different standards than, for example, the news pages of The New York Times or The Washington Post. The advocacy role is also much more common in European/British press traditions than in the U.S.

U.S. Media Would be ‘Squeamish’

“European papers in general have long tended to practice something closer to a ‘journalism of ideas’ than the journalism of information and fact that has come to characterize most big U.S. papers,” Andie Tucher, associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, wrote in an e-mail interview with The Yale Forum. “They have often been more openly opinionated in the news sections than U.S. papers would, and I think most U.S. papers would be very squeamish about the kind of involvement the Guardian is getting into.”

Tucher, a press historian and director of Columbia’s communications Ph.D. program, said U.S. media are “much more willing to be involved in things that seem straightforward charitable causes or noncontroversial public services, like the Times‘s ‘Neediest Cases’ or, way back, Pulitzer’s drive to collect money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.”

(Since 1912, the Times has run a charitable campaign to raise public awareness of “cases of notable distress.” Articles often profile the poor, with the goal of generating reader contributions for a general fund. The money is then distributed to social welfare organizations.)

Pure charity aside, the advocacy and “yellow journalism” of America’s press days past still finds its counterpart in the U.K. That’s not to shove all of the Guardian‘s journalism into that category. Though it is a left-leaning publication – and was explicitly founded with a progressive ideological bent – the Guardian stands near the top of the field in Britain, by some accounts alongside the BBC.

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker took note of the Guardian‘s unusual decision, at least relative to American standards: “This sort of open campaigning in news pages for specific policy is not so rare in the U.K. and Europe, but is in the U.S. where an official stance of neutrality and disinterested objectivity is sought (if rarely achieved) by most news outlets.”

The Tracker added: “It can’t hurt.”

Advocacy ‘Can’t Hurt.’ Or Might It?

But the uneasy questions raised over objectivity, journalistic distance, and fairness are very much on the mind of some across the Atlantic.

One long-time British environmental journalist, who asked that his name not be used because he is not authorized to speak for his organization, lamented the tradition of turning stories into campaigns.

“British newspapers have traditionally taken very partisan lines on every kind of issue, and run campaigns on everything from naming and shaming pedophiles to providing a retirement home for a worn-out donkey,” the British journalist wrote in an e-mail exchange.

“Often the lines reflect the personal views of their owners,” the e-mail continued. “In these days of increasing fragmentation, causes can presumably guarantee at least a niche readership, and as the Guardian has traditionally espoused left-wing causes, it’s no surprise to find they’ve now adopted a campaign on climate change. Is it news? In the newspaper industry, who really cares, so long as it sells?”

For his part, Katz said some other British journalists have written in favor of 10:10. However, he allowed that “among one or two others there is a bit of ‘not invented here syndrome’ – a reluctance to support the campaign because it is too closely associated with the Guardian.”

And the 10:10 campaign has even had a surprising boomerang effect. Katz noted that his audience now has high expectations that his publication will live up to the standards it is setting: “Some readers have pointed out that our readiness to accept advertising for cheap flights and gas guzzlers now looks increasingly hypocritical.”

For the Guardian, it’s now become a question not just of journalistic practice, but of practicing what you preach.

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John Wihbey

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...