The relevance to online journalism of argumentation and informal logic

(Originally posted at

In this post I want to try to suggest that journalists who are building relationships with communities online could learn much from the fields of argumentation and informal logic.

The basic argument is this:

  1. Online, journalists build relationships with us. Assuming there are some general ethical guidelines for how to treat partners in our relationships, then whether journalists act ethically then depends, somewhat, on whether what they do matches how an ethical person treats partners in their relationships.

  2. A big part of what journalists do is make arguments. We, the audience (users, readers, whatever) often argue back, especially online. When I’m talking about arguments, by the way, I don’t mean “disputes” or “bickering.” I mean merely that we give positions on issues — we argue “that” something.

  3. A good portion of argumentation and informal logic concern themselves with how to ethically give arguments and how to ethically respond to the arguments of others.

    So given that journalists argue with us in articles, tweets, blog posts, etc., and given that we respond to them with arguments of our own, and journalists respond back:

  4. Journalists who are familiar with argumentation and informal logic might be better prepared to engage in these back-and-forth discussions with the community, treat its members fairly, and take advantage of the opinions and ideas the community offers.

If “argumentation” and “informal logic” sound scary, they shouldn’t. Those fields contain some of the most approachable academic work I know of (although they contain unapproachable work, too).

(I studied argumentation and informal logic during the past semester. This fall I begin writing my graduate thesis, which uses those fields to evaluate the quality of journalists’ arguments. I wrote some posts about journalism and argumentation during the semester. This post is related to my thesis, but is on a slightly different angle.)

Ethics online

Point (1) comes from Jane Singer‘s book chapter Norms and the Network: Journalistic Ethics in a Shared Media Space. Singer argues that the ethical justification for journalists’ principles, such as the principles of truth-telling or political independence, differs when journalism is online from when it was primarily print-based.

The print media of old incurred ethical obligations to tell the truth or remain politically independent in large part because they held privileged positions as gatekeepers. Compared to today, there were few chances to independently disseminate information necessary in a democracy.

So journalists, as “the conduit through which the information necessary to a democracy must pass,” needed ethical principles so that those of us on the other side of the gate were well served. Journalistic principles included protecting against “misinformation and disinformation” passing through the gate, to ensure that we can “believe what we are told.” The justification was that there was no one else, really, to do it.

However, “when journalists move to a network [the internet], the ethical principles remain essentially the same — but the rationale for them changes to one based on relationships,” Singer writes. “Truth-telling … is as important as ever, but not because the public will not get the truth unless the journalist provides it. Rather, it is important because telling the truth is, generally, the ethical thing to do in any relationship.”

Strong relationship ethics are what make journalists relevant when, online, individuals have more options for who serves as their gatekeeper. The field of potential gatekeepers is wide-open. But if I know that I can trust a journalist because they will treat me as I deserve to be treated in a relationship, then my reasons for choosing the journalist as my gatekeeper (curator, filter — pick your term) increase.

Journalists argue

I think journalists can be accurately characterized as giving arguments, meaning they try to demonstrate to us that something is, was, or will be true about the world.

I’m not going to belabor this point here. I think you can get a good sense of what I mean in this earlier post, and, soon, I plan to post a more complete argument from my thesis proposal. I hope that even if you are skeptical about my claim that journalists argue, then you will, for now, accept it as an assumption.

Ethical argument-giving and argument-receiving

So far I have two premises: Journalists do what they do online in relationships with others, and so journalists incur ethical obligations to act as one should in a relationship. And one of the things journalists do is argue.

When you deliver news online to someone with whom you are in a relationship, you should do certain things. This is Singer’s point. She advocates, as an example, for more “personal disclosure” by journalists of the rationale for their decisions and how they feel about the results.

Similarly, when you attempt to deliver news through argument, as I think journalists do, then, ethically, you should also do certain things. Scholars in argumentation and informal logic attempt to hash out just what those certain ethical things are.

Moreover, as philosopher George Boger suggests in an article in Informal Logic, those who study argumentation and informal logic have a goal of their work grounded in humanism. These scholars teach fallacy detection or argument models, for example, not so that students can learn to “win” debates. Instead, they teach these ideas so that people can improve their lives through argument, by trying to reason together toward acceptable positions that guide them in decision-making.

For their part, journalists provide information to citizens not so the journalists can have the “right answers” about something (or that the citizens can have them for that matter), but so that everybody can try to figure out what to do given the democratic choices they have.

So journalists, I think, can feel some affinity toward these goals of argumentation and informal logic theorists. They might learn something from those theorists.

Let me offer one example of how argumentation and journalism come together. Boger quotes ten “rules for reasonable argumentative discourse” offered by Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst. Here are a five of them:

Rule 1: Parties must not prevent each other from advancing standpoints or casting doubt on standpoints.

Rule 2: A party that advances a standpoint is obliged to defend it if the other party asks him to do so.

Rule 3: A party’s attack on a standpoint must relate to the standpoint that has indeed been advanced by the other party.

Rule 5: A party may not falsely present something as a premise that has been left unexpressed by the other party or deny a premise that he himself has left implicit.

Rule 10: A party must not use formulations that are insufficiently clear or confusingly ambiguous and he must interpret the other party’s formulations as carefully and accurately as possible.

Even if journalists reject these particular rules, the general thrust of the rules is, I think, consonant with what journalists try to do online and why.

Another quick example: Some discussion of late has focused on whether and why journalists link in their stories. A link can point us to more evidence for a claim, or to the claims of others that are being challenged in a story. Not linking to claims that a journalist’s story attacks (the “linkless hypebuster”) is potentially the same thing as a “straw man” fallacy. One of the concerns of studying argument and informal logic is to see when exactly such arguments are problematic.

So for journalists to act ethically online, they might think about studying the practice and ethics of argument. Argumentation and informal logic can enable journalists to try to argue ethically, which in turn increases the strength of their relationships with others online (or there’s a good chance it will strengthen that relationship, anyway).


Here are a few articles from Informal Logic that I think would also be of interest to journalists. I link to only Informal Logic articles here because it’s an open-access journal; many good articles appear elsewhere, but they require a journal subscription.

  • John D. May, “Reportage as compound suggestion.” May discusses what he calls “invited inference.” These are “suggestions or pragmatic meanings” that are prompted by certain kinds of speech. Specifically, he focuses on “invited inferences” within journalism. These basically can be labeled as assumptions that are relatively easy for the audience to make, and are sometimes required when reading journalism. “Journalistic narratives are rich in suggestion — and sometimes are insidiously suggestive.”

  • Thomas J. Richards, “Attitudes to reasoning.” Richards is concerned with designing logic courses. But he thinks we must first answer: What are the prevailing attitudes toward logic and reason in society? His essay sets out to suggest what they are and why they’re dangerous. I wrote a blog post about this article in March.

  • Robert Fogelin, “The logic of deep disagreements.” Deep disagreements are situations in which normal argumentative exchanges do not exist. They are caused by fundamental differences in our most basic “system of mutually supporting propositions.” Deep disagreements “cannot be resolved through the use of argument, for they undercut the conditions essential to arguing.”

I would also recommend to anybody who wants to dive deep into these fields the textbook Fundamentals of argumentation theory by Frans H. van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst, and Francisca Snoeck Henkemans.


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