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?

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