Category Archives: Argumentation

The Keller-Greenwald exchange: What is there to question?

“Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?” provokes large quantities of questions. One of mine is this:

Given the reasons why Keller prefers his style of news reporting to Greenwald’s, what, if anything, would he question about the conclusions drawn by Greenwald and the Guardian in their coverage of the Snowden documents? Why?

There are many commentaries available with more questions and analysis. Some that I read and enjoyed include:


Science journalism in context: What would the arguments look like?

A study published recently in PLoS ONE concluded that science journalism fails to contextualize, over time, initial findings in medical studies. “Initial observations are often refuted or attenuated by subsequent studies,” the researchers write. But the subsequent studies receive less coverage than the initial findings. Whatever coverage subsequent studies do receive rarely references their relationship to the initial findings.

The relationship to argument in journalism here is of an “ought” question: “What ought journalists argue when they cover medical research?”

The researchers here contend that journalists ought to include a claim like, “this study [supports / refutes / questions / etc.] previous studies that…” Of course, links to previous coverage would be appropriate here, too.

Further down the line, we can judge the quality of the argument, in the form of the contextualization offered as well. What support is offered for the claim that the study supports or refutes or questions research X?

h/t: The Economist

Journalism enhanced by the principle of charity

This post is a (somewhat modified) excerpt from a paper I presented a few weeks ago (PDF). For reasons I mention below, I think it’s also relevant to the vibrant recent discussions of about “post-truth” journalism.

The principle of charity

The principle of charity, broadly stated, is that when one responds to another person’s argument, one has a responsibility to respond to the strongest possible version of that argument. That can mean doing many things on the other person’s behalf, including supplying unstated assumptions or using more precise language. Essentially, the principle of charity gives the other person the benefit of the doubt. On this point, see pages 16 and 17 of Edward Damer’s “Attacking Faulty Reasoning.”

There are some practical reasons for employing the principle of charity to an argument, but primarily it is a move of fairness.

I think its purpose as an act of fairness gives the principle of charity potential to be part of a replacement for traditional objectivity in reporting. I think it can help guide journalists past the “view from nowhere” and towards a “view from somewhere” as an ethical framework for their reporting. See page 17 or 183 of Damer.

The meaning of “objectivity” is slippery, but it can be invoked to defend journalism that attempts to “play the story down the middle,” or “give both sides of an issue,” while keeping journalists’ “opinions” out of the news.

My position about objectivity, as I already betrayed, has been shaped by Jay Rosen’s writing regarding the “View from Nowhere” in journalism. A “view from somewhere” seems to me more preferable than a view from nowhere, and my thoughts here regarding the principle of charity obviously reflect that assumption.

Advancing beyond objectivity

Traditional objectivity is seen as a practice that assists citizens in a democracy. In the words of journalist Ted Koppel, “objectivity … is presented to the public at large so that you out there have enough information that you can make intelligent decisions of your own.”

But there are signs that the grip of objectivity on mainstream journalism is loosening. An example on the larger scale is from earlier this year, when NPR released an Ethics Handbook that downplayed the need to create “the appearance of balance,” and instead prioritized “being fair to the truth.” NPR declared itself more willing to say when “the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side.” You can read the text of the handbook at

(Had I written the paper today, I would have mentioned the wave of thinking during this presidential cycle about fact-checking in political journalism and the “post-truth” era of politics. I added some relevant links to the bottom of this post.)

Journalists who would abandon objectivity as an ethical framework must also face the challenge of proposing an alternative framework to objectivity. This alternative framework must defeat fears, perhaps held by journalists themselves, that journalism without objectivity would descend into partisan yapping — that journalism without objectivity would cease to inform citizens about the issues of the day. For example, here is Ted Koppel (again) expressing such a fear.

I argue that the principle of charity can assist in the effort of developing an alternate framework for journalistic ethics. I think the principle helps advance past traditional objectivity, but while preserving objectivity’s interest in presenting in a fair manner the arguments that citizens should understand.

Journalists whose work is informed by the principle of charity can more usefully reconstruct the argument of a politician or pundit before critiquing it. They can reconstruct those arguments in a way that respects their readers’ intelligence and the efforts of those engaged in the public square.

The principle would warn journalists against, “taking cheap shots” or “nit-picking” an opponent’s argument, as they might do with, perhaps, the use of short or incomplete quotes, or by setting up a “straw man” argument. Michael Scriven wrote more about what the principle of charity requires in his textbook “Reasoning.”

The principle of charity obliges that we acknowledge the existence of challenges to our position. But it does not require that we show respect for thoset challenges by “balancing” them with our own position, as in traditional objectivity. It requires that we reconstruct those challenges as strongly and fairly as can be done, but not more.

The principle of charity, then, enables a journalist with a view from somewhere to say: “There are challenges to my position, but I’ve taken the time to study them, and I’ve tried to respect them. Even if I disagree with you, I understand you.”

How it looks to others

Journalists who embrace the principle of charity might also have to publicly confront some questions about it that scholars have investigated. For instance, when reconstructing an argument, how generous must a critic be? Should arguments be interpreted as accurately as possible as they were delivered — that is, warts and all — or should needed but missing premises be inserted on the arguer’s behalf to create a stronger position? (David Hitchcock wrote about these questions in 1996.)

Considering these questions would have some obvious intellectual benefits. But the benefits would also be public-facing. Demonstrating an interest in details of the principle would go far towards supporting the position that there is opportunity for humility and curiosity, even among journalists who abandon objectivity. The need not be cast into partisan quarreling.

‘Post-truth’ politics

I would never finish this post if I tried to update it with each of the recent posts about journalism, fact-checking, and “post-truth” politics. Suffice to say, here are some interesting and relevant links, some of which engage with something much like the principle of charity as I understand it.

The original pitch was for “the five biggest lies in Paul Ryan’s speech.” I said no. It’s not that the speech didn’t include some lies. It’s that I wanted us to bend over backward to be fair, to see it from Ryan’s perspective, to highlight its best arguments as well as its worst.

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)

Another tool that directs you to additional argument: Rbutr keeps you on your toes

When I wrote about Truth Goggles a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was important to note Andrew Phelps’s comment that “after using the Goggles for awhile, it was impossible to read articles without a skepticism bordering on incredulity.” The Goggles encouraged him to keep his critical-thinking mindset active.

Rbutr is a browser extension serves a similar function. When you visit a story or some other content that makes a claim, Rbutr notifies you of any “rebuttals” to that claim. which you can then access with a couple of clicks. Their introductory video explains the process:

In a sense, Rbutr isn’t directly related to presenting better arguments, in terms of reasons and evidence. Nor is it really related to consuming arguments with a sharper view towards a the reasons and evidence for a claim.

The system does not discriminate beyond observing that some other web page contains a response or comment about the page you’re reading. What you’re reading now might be more accurate than the rebuttal; Rbutr makes no effort to judge, in a way unlike Truth Goggles, which links to a database that measures claims as more or less truthful. The developers note this distinction themselves when they say that a primary reason to use the service is to “break out of your Filter Bubble.”

But, as an on-your-toes tool, Rbutr looks quite useful. I registered.

Visualizing the evolution of a debate on the web with Argublogging

Argublogging is an application that allows users to write arguments supporting or dissenting from any text on the web through a bookmarklet. It posts the arguments to the user’s blog and also includes a map of the debate in the argument web, “a richly structured interconnected web of debates and disputes, arguments and counterarguments.”

The respond-to-this-argument feature looks easy enough to use, although support is currently limited to posting to Tumblr and Blogger. The visualization of the “argument web,” though, looks more like something those with an academic background in argumentation would get the most use of, at least in its present form.

That said, for journalism, or any discipline involving argument, there is a lot of potential value to users in the ability to visualize the history and strands of an ongoing public debate. Someone who could use this or other argument-mapping tools to track and explain how a debate has evolved would be quite valuable to a news organization.