1. Introduction

This page is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.

The purpose of this thesis is to test the quality of arguments advanced by journalists in award-winning reporting. The arguments will be outlined and evaluated with tools from argumentation theory, informal logic, and critical thinking that engage with the arguments’ evidence and reasoning. The importance of using argumentation, informal logic, and critical thinking to evaluate journalism will follow from journalism’s own theory of its role in a democracy.

Goals

Journalists are fond of telling audiences why it is necessary that journalists produce journalism. Journalists are also fond of telling audiences why it is important that audiences consume journalism or, lately, from some quarters, that audiences produce journalism themselves (for example, Beckett, 2008; but see Pitts Jr., 2010).

Journalists are less fond of telling audiences when the audiences have consumed a sufficient amount of journalism, or when the journalism on offer simply is not worth consuming. But journalists must have answers to these questions. Their answers need not be dichotomous, yes-no, but journalists must have a point at which they would concede that their profession’s output is of such poor quality that the audience would generally be better off doing something else. Otherwise, journalists are stuck in an absolutist, intellectually dishonest position of saying that anything called “journalism” is always valuable.

The success of this thesis can, then, be judged in part by whether it accomplishes two goals. One goal is suggesting a measure along which journalism’s quality can be said to pass the low point of no return, as it were. That measure is based in the attention given to reasoning and evidence by argumentation and informal logic. The other goal is testing the measure on the apex of respect in American journalism: Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting.

Rationale

Why is it important to know the strength of evidence and reasoning in journalists’ arguments? Because that knowledge helps people confront a core question of living in a democracy, one that journalists themselves attempt to help people confront: What should we do?

People seeking to participate in democracies by answering “what should we do?” need avenues for studying the way their world is and how it should be. Journalists, through their reports, attempt to describe the world — its governance, its economy, its arts and sciences, and so on — and occasionally also contemplate how the world should be. Journalists use these reports to justify their importance in a democracy. As will be discussed, they have created a theory of democracy in which their stories, based on their monitoring of local communities and the wider world, provide information without which democratic citizens could not, and perhaps would not, fully participate in a democracy.

But journalists are only one purveyor of descriptions of and ideas about the world. People could get their fill of descriptions and ideas by, say, studying government reports, or reading philosophy, or talking with their neighbors.

Confronting these options — and also confronting the limited time available to do any of them — one must choose which option to pursue. But how?

One way to choose, if the goal is to study how the world is, is the quality of the arguments available via each option.[1]

Audiences using a quality-of-argument measure will want to know whether they will likely walk away from the journalism, government report, philosophy, or conversation having been convinced of something by means of reasons and evidence, or at least whether they can expect the reasons and evidence to have affected their thinking. Or, is it more likely they will walk away thinking: “That was a waste of time”?

Argumentation and informal logic can aid in measuring the quality of reasoning and evidence, and in turn the quality of arguments, whose target is our beliefs about the way the world is.

A source that continually provides substandard arguments such that audiences rarely can adopt the conclusions or have their thinking affected is probably not one deserving of much of their limited time (assuming, at least, that superior options exist). Says Hitchcock (2005):

information used to arrive at an answer to one’s question must be good information, in terms of the conditions previously mentioned for justified premisses [e.g., that appeals to expertise be made only regarding “some subject matter in which there is expertise”]. There is no point in taking bad information into account, still less in devoting time and effort to acquiring it. (p. 383)

Hence, the justification for this thesis is that its conclusions about whether journalism provides sound arguments will help determine whether journalism deserves the time of people who crave knowledge about the world as part of their participation in democracy. It will also test journalists on how well they fulfill their own vision of the role of journalism in democracy.

Organization

To evaluate the quality of journalistic argument and to justify doing so, this thesis uses theory from journalism, argumentation, and informal logic. Journalists generally try to provide information with which citizens in democracies can debate and act on. Argumentation and informal logic provide tools with which journalism consumers can judge how well journalists fulfill their goal. The next chapter introduces the three theories more fully.

Chapter three posits the research questions of this thesis, fills out details of its methodology and sample, and comments on potential challenges to its validity. The analysis of the sample falls into chapter four, and chapter five will offer some conclusions and suggestions for further research.


  1. This option isn’t the obvious choice it might seem to be, as highlighted by the briskly evolving ethical standards of online journalism. In the middle of a conflict-of-interest controversy at the technology blog TechCrunch, M.G. Siegler, a journalist at the site, wrote that “information,” not necessarily arguments, motivate where news consumers gravitated: “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” (Siegler, 2011, para. 26; for commentary, see Anderson, 2011b).

    Siegler alludes to another non-argument-based standard by which readers can approach journalism: the broad concept of trust. Polling organizations routinely ask whether audiences trust news media to “[report] the news fully, accurately, and fairly” (Morales, 2010) or whether they “trust information from” news media (“Press Widely Criticized,” 2011, p. 12). Those who trust the media in whatever form might not necessarily consider gaps in a story’s reasoning or evidence to be roadblocks to their acceptance of the story’s claims. Instead, those readers might simply accept the reporter’s statements on authority.

    Recently, however, Kovach and Rosenstiel have argued that the expansion of sources and forms of news content forces news consumers to assume some of the responsibility of “the basic sorting out of the facts of events” formerly laid upon journalists: “We relied on mediating authorities — the press — to do much of that for us. How well they did it is besides the point. … Now, with so many competing news conduits and so many partial accounts, we must adopt some of these diagnostic skills for ourselves, so we can at least identify good journalism from bad” (2010, p. 31).  ↩

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