Journalism enhanced by the principle of charity

This post is a (somewhat modified) excerpt from a paper I presented a few weeks ago (PDF). For reasons I mention below, I think it’s also relevant to the vibrant recent discussions of about “post-truth” journalism.

The principle of charity

The principle of charity, broadly stated, is that when one responds to another person’s argument, one has a responsibility to respond to the strongest possible version of that argument. That can mean doing many things on the other person’s behalf, including supplying unstated assumptions or using more precise language. Essentially, the principle of charity gives the other person the benefit of the doubt. On this point, see pages 16 and 17 of Edward Damer’s “Attacking Faulty Reasoning.”

There are some practical reasons for employing the principle of charity to an argument, but primarily it is a move of fairness.

I think its purpose as an act of fairness gives the principle of charity potential to be part of a replacement for traditional objectivity in reporting. I think it can help guide journalists past the “view from nowhere” and towards a “view from somewhere” as an ethical framework for their reporting. See page 17 or 183 of Damer.

The meaning of “objectivity” is slippery, but it can be invoked to defend journalism that attempts to “play the story down the middle,” or “give both sides of an issue,” while keeping journalists’ “opinions” out of the news.

My position about objectivity, as I already betrayed, has been shaped by Jay Rosen’s writing regarding the “View from Nowhere” in journalism. A “view from somewhere” seems to me more preferable than a view from nowhere, and my thoughts here regarding the principle of charity obviously reflect that assumption.

Advancing beyond objectivity

Traditional objectivity is seen as a practice that assists citizens in a democracy. In the words of journalist Ted Koppel, “objectivity … is presented to the public at large so that you out there have enough information that you can make intelligent decisions of your own.”

But there are signs that the grip of objectivity on mainstream journalism is loosening. An example on the larger scale is from earlier this year, when NPR released an Ethics Handbook that downplayed the need to create “the appearance of balance,” and instead prioritized “being fair to the truth.” NPR declared itself more willing to say when “the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side.” You can read the text of the handbook at ethics.npr.org.

(Had I written the paper today, I would have mentioned the wave of thinking during this presidential cycle about fact-checking in political journalism and the “post-truth” era of politics. I added some relevant links to the bottom of this post.)

Journalists who would abandon objectivity as an ethical framework must also face the challenge of proposing an alternative framework to objectivity. This alternative framework must defeat fears, perhaps held by journalists themselves, that journalism without objectivity would descend into partisan yapping — that journalism without objectivity would cease to inform citizens about the issues of the day. For example, here is Ted Koppel (again) expressing such a fear.

I argue that the principle of charity can assist in the effort of developing an alternate framework for journalistic ethics. I think the principle helps advance past traditional objectivity, but while preserving objectivity’s interest in presenting in a fair manner the arguments that citizens should understand.

Journalists whose work is informed by the principle of charity can more usefully reconstruct the argument of a politician or pundit before critiquing it. They can reconstruct those arguments in a way that respects their readers’ intelligence and the efforts of those engaged in the public square.

The principle would warn journalists against, “taking cheap shots” or “nit-picking” an opponent’s argument, as they might do with, perhaps, the use of short or incomplete quotes, or by setting up a “straw man” argument. Michael Scriven wrote more about what the principle of charity requires in his textbook “Reasoning.”

The principle of charity obliges that we acknowledge the existence of challenges to our position. But it does not require that we show respect for thoset challenges by “balancing” them with our own position, as in traditional objectivity. It requires that we reconstruct those challenges as strongly and fairly as can be done, but not more.

The principle of charity, then, enables a journalist with a view from somewhere to say: “There are challenges to my position, but I’ve taken the time to study them, and I’ve tried to respect them. Even if I disagree with you, I understand you.”

How it looks to others

Journalists who embrace the principle of charity might also have to publicly confront some questions about it that scholars have investigated. For instance, when reconstructing an argument, how generous must a critic be? Should arguments be interpreted as accurately as possible as they were delivered — that is, warts and all — or should needed but missing premises be inserted on the arguer’s behalf to create a stronger position? (David Hitchcock wrote about these questions in 1996.)

Considering these questions would have some obvious intellectual benefits. But the benefits would also be public-facing. Demonstrating an interest in details of the principle would go far towards supporting the position that there is opportunity for humility and curiosity, even among journalists who abandon objectivity. The need not be cast into partisan quarreling.

‘Post-truth’ politics

I would never finish this post if I tried to update it with each of the recent posts about journalism, fact-checking, and “post-truth” politics. Suffice to say, here are some interesting and relevant links, some of which engage with something much like the principle of charity as I understand it.

The original pitch was for “the five biggest lies in Paul Ryan’s speech.” I said no. It’s not that the speech didn’t include some lies. It’s that I wanted us to bend over backward to be fair, to see it from Ryan’s perspective, to highlight its best arguments as well as its worst.

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