Monthly Archives: March 2011

Argument by empathy: Popular in journalism?

(Originally posted at dherrera.org)

The question that interests me in my argumentation research as it relates to journalism is: Is what journalists write persuasive?

A separate but related question is: How do journalists attempt to persuade us? This question, I am sure, has lots of good literature, formal and informal, addressing it. The very small sample I know of would probably say journalists use anecdotes, or remind us that “I’m there, you’re not,” or promote their “objectivity” as a means of claiming authority. But I can claim no expertise on the topic.

I can speculate, though. Lately, I would predict that the “how” is heavy on the use of empathy.

The ‘Received Theory of Reasoning’

I thought about empathy recently after reading “Attitudes to Reasoning” by Thomas J. Richards. Richards was interested in developing curricula for teaching logic in school, but most of his effort in this paper went to outlining what he saw as prevailing attitudes toward logic in society.

Briefly, these attitudes are:

  1. Beliefs cannot be criticized on logical grounds. Any attempt to do so is met with responses like, “well, you’re entitled to your opinion” such that debate halts. Instead, the right to hold an opinion is such that any attempt to attack the truth of one’s belief is tantamount to attacking one’s right to hold the belief at all.

  2. The Genetic Fallacy is rejected as a fallacy at all because if opinions cannot be true or false, the only way to come up with reasons for why someone believes them is to look at their causes. So the acceptable use of “well he’s an X so of course he believes that” increases.

  3. Because reasons for beliefs are out and origins for them are in, the only way to persuade people of something is to get them to empathize with you. If they empathize with you, they can see how great the “causal state” is from which your opinions developed.

Journalism and the ‘Received Theory’

Now, to try to relate Richards’s argument to journalism. First, does (1) strike anybody else as a belief manifesting itself in traditional “objective,” both-sides journalism?

In both-sides journalism, both sides are “entitled to their opinion” and debate halts. Reporters do not criticize anybody themselves, but instead filter their criticisms through the opinions of sources — who are of course equally entitled to them.

If journalists follow (1), they might well also follow (2) and reject the genetic fallacy. I’ll be honest. I don’t know whether this one is true.

So let me conveniently skip to (3). If journalists abide by (1) and (2) then we might be able to assume they also follow (3) in their work: If empathy is the only way in which one can change their mind, then we should find that journalists lay on the empathy in their stories. They would view empathy as the only means of persuasion.

How might empathy manifest itself? One idea is the way in which profiles of individuals focus more on how that person came to think what they think rather than why or whether the person is correct.

Another place to look for empathy as persuasion is political journalism. David Broder might have been alluding to the idea in his book Behind the Front Page. Broder defends horse-race journalism on grounds that voters vote based not on “philosophies” but on “individuals.” “Voters use issues to weigh the capabilities of the candidates and to refine their own feelings about the candidates’ personality and character … In some campaigns issues are of no real importance.”

Wrapping up with two questions:

  • Is Richards’s appraisal accurate? It is, after all, decades old.

  • When is it acceptable for empathy to be journalists’ main route of persuasion?

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