I recently, finally, read Walter Frick’s Nieman Lab article “Hacking consensus: How we can build better arguments online,” and I’m happy that I did.
Apart from raising some good questions and ideas, Frick’s analysis excels where I think mine faltered: in practical examples and experiments.
I wanted to offer a couple of questions that Frick caused me to think about. I hope they’re taken as building on, not criticizing, his work. Frick himself pointed out many issues his article did not address, which is perfectly understandable.
My first question is about looking for inspiration from other fields regarding argument structure and substantiation. The second question is about how easily concepts from argumentation would slide into newsroom thinking.
Frick writes that “an argument can be broken up into discrete claims, unified by a structure that ties them together,” but that our design of content is generally not well equipped to assess each of those claims.
Where could journalism look for guidance in structuring arguments?
Argumentation and informal logic are obvious places, but, to try to answer my own question, I would also suggest the law.
One reason I enjoy reading legal argumentation is its common use of clear structure, with thesis statements, roadmaps, and a clear hierarchy of sections and subsections.
Additionally, legal argumentation has a strong norm of abundant and systematic citations, usually in the form of footnotes that contain evidence for claims and further reading (the ubiquitous “see also”).
You could look in a million places for examples of legal argumentation, but here’s a recent one related to the press). The Los Angeles Times, for example, used a footnote-like series of citations in its Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Enrique’s Journey” in 2002.
I don’t mean to suggest that journalists adopt the Harvard Blue Book (maybe the Chicago Maroonbook?), nor do I mean to suggest that the actual practice of footnoting would be a good general fit for journalism’s style and tempo. But I do mean to suggest that there are ideas about structure and sourcing, drawn from fields with a history with those sorts of things, that journalism can study.
An understanding of argumentation
To what extent are journalists and those interested in argumentation on the same page in terms of their view of how good arguments are structured or substantiated?
Let me say clearly that I don’t have strong evidence to show that journalists view the worth of structured argument differently from how, say, Frick or Douglas Walton might view it.
All I have is a bit of hesitancy, backed up by the results of my thesis. I acknowledge, of course, that it is my thesis and so my own use of it is not too dispositive.
But for what it’s worth: the thesis examined the quality of arguments among Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting.
I encountered a couple articles (out of 27) that began with something like the following:
The Herald-Tribune spent more than a year examining Florida’s property insurers, tracing the ownership of more than 70 companies through shell corporations and reviewing the financial filings of each. It found:
One in three privately insured Florida homeowners relies on insurers that exhibit one or more signs of financial risk.
More than 100,000 homeowners relied on companies barely capable of paying for house fires, let alone hurricanes. These insurers’ reserves come so close to the state’s $4 million minimum requirement that they operate with only a few hundred thousand dollars of their own to pay claims.
During the 2009 hurricane season, at least 38,000 Florida homes were insured by companies state regulators knew would fail. Homeowners were not told until after hurricane season, when one company was shut down and the other had to sell.
And so on.
Without getting into the details here (see the results section or appendix), I found that the eventual argument of the story did not follow anything close to the direction one might expect having read such a bullet-pointed introduction.
But again, this story won a Pulitzer Prize. So the community found something of value that outweighed what I saw as a structural flaw.
What does it mean that journalism with such flaws (at least I see them as flaws) could win the profession’s highest honor? Probably it means very little. But possibly it betrays something about journalists’ perception of the worth of the argumentation techniques described by Frick, Walton, and others.
The initial problem then goes beyond lacking a design for content that is more structured, and that is better equipped to address discrete claims.
The problem becomes, additionally, one of assumptions within newsrooms and within argumentation about the need for such structures and techniques at all. I would think that synthesizing those assumptions would take some discussion.