Category Archives: Argument from authority

Clay Shirky on online journalism ethics

Clay Shirky recently published an essay at Poynter about the challenge of fostering trust when ideas in the public sphere are no longer scarce.

A relevant excerpt:

The philosophy of news ethics — tell the truth to the degree that you can, fess up when you get it wrong — doesn’t change in the switch from analog to digital. What does change, enormously, is the individual and organizational adaptations required to tell the truth without relying on scarcity, and hewing to ethical norms without the ability to use force.

Incidentally, the idea expressed in that excerpt is similar to the conclusion drawn by Jane Singer in “Norms and the Network: Journalistic Ethics in a Shared Media Space.”


Arguments from authority: ‘Be Careful Who You Quote’

Arguments from authority in journalism can be dangerous these days.

On the surface, these people look like legitimate experts. And I think many journalists don’t necessarily look at the motivations of their sources. It’s obvious when you’re talking to a political campaign, but other than that I don’t think reporters look closely enough. You have to check the background. What can you find that legitimates their expertise?

From “Be Careful Who You Quote,” an interview with Melanie Sloan in Nieman Reports.

Thoughts about Wahl-Jorgensen’s ‘Strategic ritual of emotionality’

A few weeks ago, I sketched a post in response to Karin Wahl-Jorgensen’s article “The strategic ritual of emotionality”. But it seems I got delete-happy and erased the file.

I wanted to post about the article anyway because I found it stimulating. Here are some lightly edited notes and questions from my initial reading of the paper.

Replacing objectivity’s legal safeguard

I am less familiar with Gaye Tuchman’s work than I should be, but Wahl-Jorgensen’s article interested me in Tuchman’s work even more.

Wahl-Jorgensen summarizes Tuchman as arguing that reporters embraced traditional objectivity, with its standardized process, in part because it helped protect them from errors that could lead to expensive libel suits.

One position I recently took is that reporters who want to abandon traditional objectivity can use the principle of charity as part of a replacement ethical framework. The principle of charity, broadly stated, is that when we critize an argument we have an obligation to represent the argument in its strongest form.

If Tuchman is correct that reporters have embraced objectivity in part for its legal protections, then it seems to me fair and practical for reporters to ask whether the principle of charity would provide them similar shelter. I couldn’t answer that question today. But I have no interest in seeing a chilling effect follow from use of the principle. I’d like to research the legal literature to see whether it has addressed objectivity in the context of libel laws.

Where is the evidence?

Regina Lawrence and Matthew Schafer recently found that journalists who labeled Sarah Palin’s “death panels” claim false did so without attribution surprisingly frequently.

Similarly, Wahl-Jorgensen found evidence that journalists justfied claims, emotional or otherwise, without often rushing to use quotations as evidence, which, she says, the “objective” style might lead you to expect. Instead, reporters tended to rely on their epistemic authority: Their saying it was enough to justify it.

The two samples are not necessarily comparable. Wahl-Jorgensen studied Pulitzer-winning stories, and the other story examined general-purpose stories. Still, what is going on here?

Thoughts about Lawrence and Schafer’s ‘Debunking Sarah Palin’

Regina Lawrence and Matthew Schafer recently published “Debunking Sarah Palin: Mainstream news coverage of ‘death panels.’” The abstract, slightly edited:

This study examines how traditional media reported on [Sarah Palin’s] ‘death panels’ claim that was immediately debunked by several fact-checking organizations. Our content analysis of over 700 newspaper and television stories shows that, to a significant degree, journalists stepped outside the bounds of procedural objectivity to label the ‘death panels’ claim as false, often without attribution. Many stories, however, simultaneously covered the claim in typical ‘he said/she said’ fashion, thus perhaps extending some legitimacy to the claim.

The paper sent my thinking toward two questions in particular related to argument in journalism.

What assumptions are in play?

'Death panel' imageFirst, this paper is relevant to discussing whether, when, and why arguments from authority might be appropriate for journalists to use. But there must be mutual understanding between reporter and audience of the assumptions involved.

A journalist’s assumptions about whether a source’s claims require verification change depending on the source’s characteristics. These characteristics can include the source’s position (“candidate for office,” “national security official”) and how they acquired that position (elected, appointed).

Lawrence and Schafer write that, given variations in whether journalists unexaminedly report claims:

An important question therefore becomes, under what conditions will the news go beyond reflexively reporting what key political actors say to engage in verifying the accuracy of those claims for their readers or viewers.

That journalists make these assumptions doesn’t seem shameful. But as a reader it would be helpful to know what the assumptions are.

Additionally, from a research perspective, the paper notes that scholars have spent time examining the situations where journalists do or don’t grant sources authority sans verification. I would be interested to see more of that work and whether the work judges the assumptions as justified or not. Where might I start?

Does it matter if they didn’t debunk ‘death panels’?

Second, the paper is primarily concerned with whether and how newspaper and TV journalists tried to show that Sarah Palin’s “death panels” claim was false.

Should we care, as consumers of journalism, whether journalists labeled the claim as false? Yes, I think, if the truth of the claim is important to a conclusion of the article.

Regina Lawrence commented on the subject of the articles in an interview with CJR:

We were actually surprised to find just a small handful of stories that actually looked at the policy discussion around so-called death panels. The death panels claim may be false in and of itself, but it comes from a larger, very important question: How are we going to provide for people who are going to have end-of-life counseling in a way that gives doctors incentive to do a good job of it, knowing they’re going to get reimbursed? That’s kind of the heart of the policy issue there. That’s what morphed into this claim about government bureaucrats deciding who will get care and who will not. We found literally less than five stories, if I remember correctly, in this whole sample of hundreds of stories, that actually talked in real depth about end-of-life counseling and the complexities and challenges of that. When the death panels claim came up, it quite often came up in a political context, as part of a political debate, part of day-to-day coverage of politics more than of policy.

It seems conceivable that the truth of the “death panels” claim was irrelevant to at least some of the conclusions in this sample of journalism — particularly the stories that were “part of day-to-day coverage of politics more than policy.” So in those stories, journalists might not have bothered with it, reasonably.

But would the truth of the claim have been irrelevant to many, not just some, conclusions in the sample? That’s harder to say. If the truth of the claim was relevant to many of the conclusions in the sample, then the findings of the paper would be troubling.

Furthermore, why bring the “death panels” claim into the picture at all if it was irrelevant to the conclusion? Why would they mention it if they didn’t need to debunk it for their own claim to be supported? If they needed to mention the claim, then why didn’t they debunk it with evidence?

‘Death Panel’ image by Heidi and Matt (CC BY-NC-SA)

Authority in journalism and arguments from authority

What does it mean for a journalist to have “authority” as derived from her ability to be somewhere or do something that her readers cannot? Jay Rosen offers an answer in this essay: Not that the reporter’s ability creates an argument from authority as such, but a weaker claim: “a legitimate claim on public attention.”

By “authority” I simply mean the right to be listened to, a legitimate claim on public attention. You begin to have authority as a journalist not when you work for a brand name in news (although that helps) but when you offer a report that users cannot easily get on their own. If we go way back in journalism history, the first people to claim this kind of authority were those who could say… I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.

Read more: I’m There, You’re Not, Let Me Tell You About It

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?