At their best they bring important issues to light, motivate the public to engage in the democratic process and force politicians to improve public policy. At their worst they blur fact and opinion, silence alternative points of view and lead to news being manufactured rather than reported.
We're talking, of course, about newspaper campaigns -- the latest being The Daily Telegraph's "Stop the Trolls" crusade that has starred on the paper's front page for two days in a row and will continue over the coming weeks.
While many readers argue that any agenda-pushing should be limited to a paper's opinion pages, former editors interviewed by Crikey concur that campaigns are part of newspapers' raison d'etre.But all have doubts about the Tele's troll crusade and its chance of success.
"Good newspapers advocate for change in the community," said former Herald Sun editor Bruce Guthrie. "If they're not advocates they just become bland tellers of stories. My view is there's been too little of it in recent years."
Guthrie says he's proud of the campaigns he championed on the front pages of his papers -- tabloid and broadsheet. A successful Sunday Age campaign for mandatory backyard pool fencing has saved lives; a Herald Sun campaign calling for a crackdown on CBD violence led to lockouts and on-the-spot fines that made Melbourne a safer place.
The gold standard for newspaper campaigns, Guthrie says, remains the Melbourne Sun's 1970 "Declare war on 1034" campaign. It led to the world's first mandatory seatbelt laws by railing against the 1034 people who had died on Victorian roads the previous year.
"I've always favoured campaigns that directly impact the city and improve the city," he said. "My concern with this one is that it's not of direct benefit to the people of Sydney and I wonder how achievable it is. My gut reaction as a former editor is that it's a bit airy fairy and the goal isn't as well-sketched as it should be."
The Tele says its aim is "to stop the vile and abusive trolls on Twitter that facelessly and mercilessly attack not just celebrities and sports stars but other everyday users simply for the thrill. Our goal is to push for Twitter to be obligated to work with authorities when these cowards have broken the law, bullied and abused others simply because they can, hidden by their anonymity."
Peter Fray, a former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, described it as "pop journalism in a pop journal".
"Campaigns are an honest way of admitting that editors and journalists set agendas.
"I don't have a problem with it. The doubt I have about the Twitter trolls campaign is: will it change anything?"
Campaigns, Fray says, can help media organisations connect with their audience -- but they can also polarise readers. Under his watch, The Sunday Age ran a "Bring David Hicks home" campaign that angered some conservative consumers. The Tele's anti-troll campaign, he says, is likely to engage readers aged up to 35 but alienate older readers or those who have little interest in social media.
As Crikey reported last week, only 1% of Australians rate Twitter as the social media or communications platform they use most.
This helps explain the muted response to The Tele's campaign. Despite being plastered over the paper's website and front page, fewer than 600 people have signed the Stop the Trolls Twitition. Another 260 have signed up at change.org.
Michael Gawenda, a former editor of The Age, said: "You can't say, in a blanket fashion, that all campaigns are bad. Each one has to be assessed as you would any piece of journalism. Is it fair? Is it well reported? Is the opposing side getting a fair go?"
Gawenda described The Tele's anti-Troll push as "a weird campaign for a media organisation to run -- they're trying to silence people".
Denis Muller, a former associate editor of the SMH and The Age, was blunter: "It's breathtakingly hypocritical for The Daily Telegraph to demand the rest of society to be courteous and decent when they have used their own platform in the most outrageous way."
Gawenda says he is particularly opposed to "marketing campaigns masquerading as journalism" -- namely The Tele's support for columnist Lachlan Harris' "One Big Switch" initiative or Fairfax's Earth Hour partnership.
"It was a campaign that didn't depend on good journalism," Gawenda says of Earth Hour. "There was a sense that the stories they were running about it were just puff pieces."
Daily Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker told Crikey this morning he is proud of his paper's campaigning record -- including recent championing of swim safety and driveway safety. "The aim of the campaign is not stop the use of Twitter for news, communication, debate and comments, but to ensure these anonymous bullies are held to account," he said.
"We believe Twitter founder Jack Dorsey has a great opportunity to take the lead here and work to stop these bullies. The authorities must also be more willing to use the laws which already exist to pursue and prosecute people who use Twitter to threaten, intimidate and menace."
If Twitter does change its policy on anonymity, it will all have been worth it. "There’s only one rule for campaigns," said Guthrie. "You've got to win."