Monthly Archives: February 2011

Journalism from the perspective of the audience

(Originally posted at

In Fundamentals of Argumentation Theory (what turned out to be a very useful survey) the authors write:

The treatments of missing premises in the literature reveal a variety of overlapping assumptions about the problem and approaches to the problem. … For one thing, a decision has to be made as to which argument is under scrutiny. Some theorists focus on the argument given, or intended, by the arguer, with the attendant problems of interpretation. Others focus on the argument in relation to the person deciding whether to believe or act on its conclusion, and then seek to interpret it in terms of how well it supports that claim. (177)

In the thesis I will likely end up writing, I will interpret journalists’ descriptive arguments. So this passage was important for me because “a decision has to be made” as to going about the interpreting, specifically regarding missing premises.

Do I try to understand a journalist’s argument as I think the journalist intended? Or do I focus on the journalist’s argument as one would who is trying to believe or act on that argument? (Or, is there another way not mentioned by the authors?)

It seems that the latter method is more appropriate. The journalist’s argument should be interpreted through the lens of the person trying to decide what to do.

My reason is this: that the latter method is, almost paradoxically, more charitable to journalists. Journalists speak all the time about how their work is supposed to allow the public to act in a democracy. To critique their arguments based on interpretations other than one placing the audience at the forefront would be to attack a straw man, would it not? “It’s inappropriate to try to fill in any blanks for me,” journalists might say.

Expert opinions, again

An interesting problem arises, though, at least for journalists, if we interpret arguments through the view of the person trying to act on the argument.

If we do so, must we then regard as unacceptable (for the purposes of justifying an argument) any journalistic appeal to authority, say to an economist, that rings hollow to or confuses the audience? Wouldn’t it be the case that whatever the journalist thinks about the credibility or brilliance of the source is moot unless the journalist persuades us to their position about the source?

“This is a trivial thing to note,” the reply might go, “no journalist worth her salt would say that her use of an authority in her argument is justified even if the audience rejects the authority.”

I suppose. But still, what about those times when the courageous journalist pursues some piece of truth even when her editors, audiences, and sources all think she’s wrong? In those cases, she would willingly put forward an unbelievable argument because the people seeking to act on her stories wouldn’t trust the authorities in them. She would willingly put forward arguments she knew wouldn’t be accepted.

But perhaps, in some cases, that’s the right thing to do?