Category Archives: Journalism

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

Fact-checking: Channeling Arendt

Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.

From “Fact Checking the Fact Checkers,” by “RB” at the Hannah Arendt Center. The argument that too strong a focus on “fact checking” leads to the belief that the world is simpler and cleaner than it is seems close to prima facie true. But why believing in a simpler world is attractive, and what kind of utility the belief brings, look like they’re deep in Arendt theory, particularly regarding a person’s need for some sort of coherence and stability. Where would one go to start learning more about Arendt’s thinking?

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 ethics.npr.org.

(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.

Make critical thinking cool, the journalism way

Train your readers to expect a certain experience not just from your website, but from every source of news. Make sure that experience is either expensive or impossible for alternative sources to replicate. Newspapers need to make their readers expect proof of everything. People should feel uncomfortable trusting information without explicit, functional credibility.

Dan Schultz says newspapers must advance past a form of argument that results in “being a bunch of words with prose-based evidence.”

I think the point can be summarized as: If news organizations don’t make critical thinking cool, then someone else will. If someone else does, then news organizations will suffer.

Read Dan’s post: “The Value of a Super Villain.”

How do journalists argue using documents and data?

Professor C.W. Anderson recently presented his latest research project at a colloquium at UNC. The session was recorded (and embedded below), and after watching it, I think that the project is pretty interesting from the argument-in-journalism perspective.

Anderson’s project, as I understand it, is to place historical context around the way journalists use and have used documents to report.

Scholars of journalism have watched for a long time how interviews and first-person witnessing of events become building blocks of news stories. They also examine what has changed in journalists’ use of interviews and witnessing over many decades.

According to Anderson, for any historical period, we can ask three questions these journalistic processes: How journalists collect interviews (or witnesses, or data); how journalists analyze them; and how the results are presented to readers and users.

Now, Anderson wants to study the use of documents and data journalism in a similar way: How are documents and data collected, analyzed, and the results eventually presented to readers and users?

The question of presentation is key. If and when journalists present an argument (or presented an argument, historically) that has documents or data journalism as a pillar, what is done with them to try to make a persuasive case?

With knowledge in hand of how journalists use data and documents to argue conclusions, using the analytical tools of argumentation, informal logic, and critical thinking is the easy next step. How strong are those arguments? Are they stronger or weaker than non-data-driven arguments? What is missing from them? And so on.

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