Monthly Archives: September 2011

If most of journalism is argument, then how do we respond?

If the bulk of what journalists do is argue, as I think it might be, then how do we as readers and users of journalism determine whether to accept journalists’ claims?

One way to decide, if the goal is to study how the world is, is to measure the quality of journalists’ arguments using the tools of critical thinking. Critical thinking involves asking of a story what are its reasons and evidence, but also what assumptions about the world it contains, what ambiguous words it uses, whether it contains fallacies, and so on.

But some recent blog posts and time spent at the recent Online News Association conference reminded me that seeking the “quality of argument” is not a necessary response to the view that journalism consists mostly of arguments. There are at least two other responses:

  1. Ignoring journalists’ arguments in favor of seeking information

  2. Complementing a study of argument quality with a judgment about the trust we are willing to give the journalist or organization

‘All the rest is bullshit’

One response to the view that journalism is mostly made up of arguments is to simply ignore it and instead focus on the “information” in a story. The information-hunting approach to journalism was recently discussed by MG Siegler, in the midst of the TechCrunch ethical conflagration:

Ultimately there is only one thing that matters: information. People don’t care how they get it, just that they get it. If they don’t think they can trust it from one source, they’ll find another way to get it. It really is that simple. The market will decide. All this back-and-forth is meaningless.

Don’t believe me? A day after half of the web was ready to start boycotting TechCrunch last week, I broke the news about Amazon’s Kindle tablet. The result was TechCrunch seeing visiting patterns decidedly opposite of a boycott.

Information is all that matters. All the rest is bullshit.

CW Anderson later analyzed on Siegler’s post; I found the analysis helpful.

When measured with critical thinking, the quality of an argument might be harmed by conflicts of interest, or some other problem like non-sequiturs. Siegler seems to propose that these concerns be discounted by users of journalism, in favor of asking what information we get from the story, well-argued or not. Because at least for me the practice of critical thinking is very much pragmatic, Siegler’s argument — “like it or not, this is how things work” — gets my attention.

Trust me

Another response to journalists arguing is to base acceptance of a journalist’s argument on a combination of the quality of the argument and the trust we put in the journalist or organization. The idea of trust came up a few times during the ONA conference, so lately I’ve been thinking about it a little more.

Trust is, certainly, a broad concept. Siegler alludes to it in his post. Polling firms measure it in many ways: Gallup asked about audiences’ trust in news media to “[report] the news fully, accurately, and fairly”; Pew asked about “trust[ing] information from” news media. But the attention paid to it suggests that “trust” is something journalists value (maybe even more than “quality of argument”).

Why might trust be important as a supplement or compliment to quality of argument?

One way trust can be understood is that I could trust you to such a degree that I consider you an authority or expert, either on some topic or generally.

If I see you as an authority, say on aviation policy, then I can accept your conclusions about aviation policy as arguments from authority. If I accept your arguments based on your authority, then my standards change regarding the reasoning and evidence I want to see before accepting a claim. I might be willing to accept fewer of either and allow your authority to fill in the gap, because I trust you to know what you’re saying.

If “a journalist” or “a news organization” is substituted for “you” in the above sentence, then a journalist’s quality of argument, at least the explicit parts of the argument, is less important for me to know. I would accept the journalist’s argument based on her authority.

So the main question to ask of a journalistic argument from authority is not “how good are the reasons and evidence?” but “what do I know that qualifies this person to be an authority or expert?”

What sorts of slip-ups in reasoning or evidence should we tolerate, and which should we condemn? What do we need to see to consider a journalist an authority?

When do you stop reading journalism?

These paragraphs are pulled from the introduction of the draft of my thesis. The best way to attack the thesis is to challenge this section and the larger argument of which it’s a part, and of which I’ll continue posting drafts. References here. (About the thesis)

Journalists are fond of telling audiences why it’s necessary that journalists produce journalism. Journalists are also fond of telling audiences why it’s important that audiences consume journalism or, lately, from some quarters, that audiences produce journalism themselves (for example, Beckett, 2008; but see Pitts Jr., 2010).

Journalists are less fond of telling audiences when the audiences have consumed a sufficient amount of journalism, or when the journalism on offer simply isn’t worth consuming. But journalists must have answers to these questions. Their answers need not be dichotomous, yes-no, but journalists must have a point at which they would concede that their profession’s output is of such poor quality that the audience would generally be better off doing something else. Otherwise, journalists are stuck in an absolutist, intellectually dishonest position of saying that anything called “journalism” is always valuable.

The success of this thesis can, then, be judged in part by whether it accomplishes two goals. One, suggesting a measure along which journalism’s quality can be said to pass the low point of no return, as it were. The suggested measure is based in the attention given to reasoning and evidence by argumentation and informal logic. Two, testing the measure on the apex of respect in American journalism: Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting.

The point made below by Craig Allen Smith has probably been made many times. But Smith’s presentation socked me in the jaw:

Because journalists report “stories” they are necessarily guided by the logic of “good stories,” including the tension associated with unexpected outcomes. Dramatic logic therefore thrives on erroneous predictions, which foster dependency on narrators and undermine independent thought. The paradox of narration is that seeming correct enhances the narrator’s perceived expertise, whereas seeming incorrect heightens the drama and the audience’s need for authoritative narration. Right or wrong, the narrator’s role is enhanced. Conversely empirical logic relies on observation to test the narrator’s projections. Here, seeming correct enhances the narrator’s credibility, whereas seeming incorrect undermines both the narrator’s credibility and the explanatory power of the narrative. (p. 520)

The problem is not so much that campaigns are “unpredictable.” The problem is that incorrect predictions make for better journalism when “journalism” is understood in a certain way.

Smith concludes:

As journalists constructed their explanation of presidential campaigns through 1988 they used a dramatic logic that is empirically illogical. Those who interpret election laws and procedures, voting histories, and opinion polls as mileposts in a “horse-race” misinform their audiences about the democratic process. The problem stems not from a lack of data or information. The problem is that unwarranted expectations can never be exposed by “story journalism” because unwarranted expectations are a sure-fire source of dramatic surprises. When observations contradict mythic expectations, they lead to even more fanciful melodrama. (p. 527)

Both quotes come from Smith’s “The Iowa Caucuses and Super Tuesday Primaries Reconsidered: How Untenable Hypotheses Enhance the Campaign Melodrama”, published in Presidential Studies Quarterly in 1992 (JSTOR link). Smith’s contrast between “dramatic logic” and “empirical logic” also relates to recent posts on using the scientific method in journalism (see Robert Niles, Matt Thompson).

About this blog: ‘How strong is the argument?’

When someone wants to convince you of something, you usually go through a few steps before accepting what they say.

You try to understand what their conclusion is. You look for the reasons and evidence they use to support it. You ask questions about how strong the evidence is, what assumptions the conclusion entails, what alternate conclusions are possible, and so on. You explore counterarguments. Finally, you decide whether you can accept the conclusion given what you know.

In other words, when someone wants to convince you of something, you ask, “how strong is the argument?”

Every day, journalists try to convince people of something about the world. What happens when we ask, “how strong is the argument?”

I’m David Herrera, and I’m a master’s student at the Missouri School of Journalism. My thesis asks of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism: “How strong is the argument?”

I think that if the topic of my thesis has any practical utility to people who read journalism and try to use it as part of their lives in democracies, then the only way to find out is to share it publicly.

So this blog is a place for ideas, questions, and concerns that I encounter as I research and write. When I finish my thesis, I’ll post it here.

Earlier this year I posted about this topic on my website; those posts have been copied to this blog for the sake of keeping everything in one place.

You can find me on Twitter as @dlh01. My home base online is dherrera.org. Email: david@dherrera.org.