Category Archives: Routines

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.

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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?

The source of arguments in journalism and the role of editors

Any attempt to analyze the quality of arguments of journalists must come with an understanding of newsroom dynamics. This short post is about one part those dynamics: the role of editors.

In my thesis, which analyzed the argument quality of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, I frequently referred to “the reporter’s argument.” In a footnote, I wrote that such descriptions were oversimplifications because journalism is the product of several forces inside and outside the newsroom. The kind and quality of argument a reporter can generate is limited by those forces.

When I wrote that footnote I had in mind things forces like copy desk trims or government agencies who horde official data. But Tim Vos, one of my committee members, pointed out to me a force I hadn’t considered: editors.

In particular, a story might be considered “done” — meaning, posted to the CMS, dispatch to copy editors, or what have you — not when the reporter thinks he or she has presented a strong argument. Instead, an editor decides because the deadline is near, or has been waiting for the story for a long time, or doesn’t want to push a story in a particular direction.

“The Wire” dramatized an approximate version of the above forces, albeit with a reporter and editor confronting another editor:

Meanwhile, readers, who have enough trouble learning about the reporters whose names grace the arguments presented in news stories (Matthew Ingram on this point last year), now have to wonder: What do I know about the editors who might be pushing the story forward? How could I find out?

The point to all of this is that whether stories contain arguments ready for use by readers can depend on the views of argument quality by at least one unknown person. This person might or might not have as strong a sense of a good argument as the reporter.

The unknown quantity that is the editing process creates uncertainty for those who try to use journalism in part of their daily lives. The uncertainty adds a measure of importance, I think, that journalists (of all positions) open up a little about themselves with their communities — to say “where I’m coming from.” For readers who approach journalism as argument, such openness creates an opportunity for more trust in reporting.

Medium and routines: Should they influence whether we accept arguments?

I read two academic articles earlier this week that got me thinking about whether, and how, our acceptance of an argument should be influenced by the conditions that the person producing the argument was in.

The first was Citizen Video Journalists and Authority in Narrative: Reviving the Role of the Witness by Mary Angela Bock. The article looked whether “citizen” and “professional” journalists differed in how they attempted to assert their authority in their work, given that “citizen” journalists lack the institutional authority most “professional” journalists enjoy.

The second was Epistemologies of TV journalism: A theoretical framework by Mats Ekström. Ekström’s proposed framework for studying TV journalism’s epistemology included questions about how TV journalists decide that a claim is one they want to put on the air, how they can gather and test facts, and what has to be true for the audience to accept the “knowledge” these processes produce.

Ignoring for a minute that these studies focus on only visual journalism, as I read I thought about myself, a journalism consumer (or user), reading or hearing the material that emerges from the places Bock and Ekström studied. Knowing what those scholars tell me about the images I see is very interesting. I want to know the questions that are in play about why the news I read is the way it is.

But what does this knowledge about the conditions of production have to do with whether I accept the arguments that journalists are offering me?

Say some journalists come out with some story with some conclusion, but initially I find their evidence unconvincing. Should I think differently knowing that the story was shaped by the conditions and institutions of journalism that Bock or Ekström describe (or, for that matter, those described by Gans, Tuchman, etc.)?

My first reaction is, “of course not” — no more than I would excuse the poor argument of, say, an economist just because the argument happened to be persuasive to people in the field. It strikes me as an explanation, but not an excuse.

But is my reaction too harsh? None of the journalists involved decided how the routines of journalism should be; in the case of TV journalism, none of them decided what sort of behavior and content the medium should encourage and what it discourages. Yet my reaction leads me to ignore them all the same.