2. Theoretical framework and literature review

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The description of the theories that follows is somewhat lengthy (or perhaps merely laborious). The length, however, is needed to support the final section of the framework, which defends the application of argument and informal logic to journalism. Following the theoretical framework is a review of relevant literature.

Theoretical framework

Journalism’s theory of democracy

Nearly all attempts to justify, explain, or critique journalism, at least in the American context, have at their core its necessity in democracy. Journalism’s essential place in democracy is an “article of faith among journalists” (Jones, 2009, p. 32).

Journalists can assume several roles in democracies. The concept of role lends itself to two dimensions: the tasks involved in fulfilling the role and of the purpose of doing so (Christians et al., 2009, p. 119).

Christians et al. (2009, p. 125) classified journalists’ possible democratic roles into four types: “monitorial,” which encompasses reporting on “information of all kinds about current and recent events” (p. 125); “facilitative,” in which media “[help] to develop a shared moral framework for community and society” (p. 126; on media and shared frameworks in general, see Schudson, 2003, pp. 24–25); “radical,” where media expose and inspire action against corruption and inequality; and “collaborative,” which guides the press when collisions between it and “social events,” particularly in new nations, is unavoidable (p. 127). Exactly which roles of journalism are more prominent than others in a location depends to an extent on the kind of “democracy” found there (for a review, see Cunningham, 2002). Christians et al. (2009) said the prominence of the different roles depended on the strength of ties among community members, the power relationships among the press, business, and government, and who in society can hold media accountable (pp. 127–133).

Norris (2000) was more specific. Following the theories of Joseph Schumpeter and Robert Dahl, she divided democracy into three dimensions: “pluralistic competition” for official power; citizen participation in elections, and the liberty to speak, publish and organize (pp. 22–23). Journalism, correspondingly, has three primary functions in a democracy. It is “a civic forum for pluralistic debate, as a watchdog for civil and political liberties, [and] a mobilizing agent for public participation” (p. 23, her emphasis).

This paper will focus on only one of these roles: that which Christians et al. (2009) call the monitorial role and Norris calls the civic-forum role. Journalism under this role should provide information that helps answer: “Given that we can choose, what should we do?”

The monitorial role is perhaps the most important possible set of tasks and goals that journalists could adopt. Christians et al. (2009) said the monitorial role “is probably the most widely recognized and least controversial in terms of conventional ideas about what the press should be doing” (p. 125). The monitorial role is “required” in each of the four models of democracy their book proposed (p. 133). Norris (2000) emphasized the importance of information in democratic decisions: “What voters need for effective citizenship, and therefore what news media should provide, is practical knowledge about the probable consequences of their political actions” (p. 30, her emphasis).

Gans (2003) has referred to journalists’ own overriding concern for providing information as “Journalism’s Theory of Democracy” (p. 55). The “theory” provides journalists with a role, and therefore with tasks and purposes, in a democracy.

The “task” is “informing citizens,” although the topics in need of reportage are unclear: The theory “does not specify … what news is and is not essential to advance or maintain democracy” (Gans, 2003, p. 56; similarly, Christians et al. (2009) referred blandly to “information of all kinds” (p. 125)).

The “purpose” is a straight line from information to an improved nation. Following the new leads citizens to be more likely to participate more in politics. Increased political participation ipso facto makes America “more democratic” (p. 56).

The strength of the perceived connection between journalists providing information and a successful democracy is exemplified by how the connection remains a part of justifications for journalism, even when those justifications simultaneously critique its mainstream practice.

For example, the “public journalism” movement of the 1990s advocated for an expanded presence for journalists in public life. Its proponents said journalists should not only report facts but also ensure the public can “carry out” its preferences (Charity, 1995, p. 2). By the Christians et al. and Norris typologies, public journalism sought to increase the force of journalists as facilitators and mobilizing agents.

Yet Charity (1995) reported that the journalists who introduced the movement thought “journalism ought to make it as easy as possible for citizens to make intelligent decisions about public affairs” (p. 2). Charity’s book, itself a quasi-textbook on public journalism, spent many pages on how journalism can give citizens the information they need to act. Even in advocating for a change in journalists’ role, then, public journalism kept a place for monitoring public affairs and providing useful information about the state of the world.

So did Christians, Ferre, and Fackler (1993), who proposed, more radically, that journalism shift its ethical grounding from mainstream values of efficiency and individual autonomy to values at the core of communitarian thought, such as mutuality and justice. But the characteristics of communitarian journalism still include claims about the way the world is — the sorts of claims required of the monitorial role. What is different under Christians, Ferre, and Fackler’s view is merely what part of the world to monitor. They advocate for making claims “that justice requires,” not claims that glamorize “rewards of wealth and power” (p. 93).

Communitarian journalism thus jettisons the Enlightenment view that individuals build knowledge “brick by brick,” but it does not jettison the view that claims about the world are integral to journalism even when the journalism explicitly focuses on justice (p. 90). In fact, the authors highlighted investigative journalism — the concern of the present study — as “a running record of the strategic potential of framing the news narrative in terms of justice” (p. 97).[1]

The work cited thus far has, however, come from before the movement of journalism to the Internet, or from the movement’s early stages. Have more recent developments in online journalism changed the importance of journalists as monitors — as making claims about the world — in a democracy?

No, says Singer (2010). She described journalists as operating on principles related to their part in “a democratic process that survives only through public access to reliable accounts of what is going on in the world” (p. 118). In moving to the “network” of the Web, as Singer calls it, the “rationale” for the ethical stances changes: Online, journalists enter new relationships with their audiences that demand fairness and truth-telling because these qualities are appropriate for any human relationship (pp. 118–119).

But despite these developments in journalism ethics, the importance of the monitorial role remains. Reliable claims about the world as made by journalists, professional or otherwise, remain important. Singer’s approach suggests that the potential for journalists to act in a facilitative role increases online. But the Web enhances the potential for fulfilling the monitorial role as well.

Rosen (2010), for example, proposed a “100 percent solution” for covering a topic of importance to a community, such as a mayor’s race. Mainstream and alternative media, old and new, would combine to “cover every event, big and small, involving every candidate … but also all the events where the candidates themselves may be missing but the campaign is somehow alive and present” (para. 5, emphasis his). Rosen proposed that cooperation in pursuit of a difficult, even undefinable goal such as covering “100%” of anything can, in turn, inspire innovation in online news.

So for both Singer and Rosen, even as they illustrate the need and potential for journalism to rethink its practice, the need for journalism’s monitorial role online is clear.

The link between journalism and democracy is not drawn at only a theoretical level. The link is part of both what journalists tell themselves about what they do and how they justify their work to the public.

What journalists tell themselves and the public about their work is important. It provides a standard that journalists have announced they should meet. So keeping those standards in mind helps ensure that any attacks on journalism from those fields are against actual positions held by journalists and not against straw arguments.

So it is important that, for example, Kovach and Rosenstiel (2007), attempting to describe “the common ground on which journalists [stand],” (p. 257), reported that the “primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing” (p. 12). According to their surveys of journalists and “journalism mission statements,” the adherence to the providing-information doctrine is consistent (p. 14–15). Recent international survey data also hints that providing information for political decisions is, in fact, a universal goal of contemporary journalists (Hanitzsch et al., 2011, p. 280).

The conviction that journalism foremost serves information needs in a democracy surely influences mainstream commentators such as Rutten (2009), who went so far as to say that the press acts as the “custodian” of the First Amendment “on behalf of the American people” (para. 7). The conviction buttresses warnings, such as that from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (2009), that the Washington, D.C. press corps increasingly targets elite, niche audiences and decreasingly attends to the interests of the “general public” (p. 1).

There is, however, opposition to the view that journalism’s primary purpose is monitoring, facilitating, or anything else related to democracy.

An obvious response comes from the libertarian perspective. One such commentator is Merrill (1974). His view of freedom of the press commands that the press be assigned no social responsibility, but rather that the press have the autonomy to do what it likes. “Obligations and responsibilities are contradictory to freedom … As a journalist I must do what I think is responsible, not what some other journalist” thinks is (p. 80). Notwithstanding their normative focus, Christians et al. (2009) agreed: “No formal claim can be legitimately be made on a free press to carry out any particular task” (121).

Even the U.S. Supreme Court, which frequently encourages the press to carry out the monitorial role — such as in Near v. Minnesota (1931, pp. 717–720) or in New York Times v. United States (1971, for example p. 724) — endorsed Merrill’s libertarian view, at least regarding newspapers, when provoked in Miami Herald v. Tornillo (1974). Miami Herald addressed the constitutionality of a statute in Florida that gave some subjects of newspaper editorials the “right to respond” in the same publication. The Court struck down the statute. “A responsible press is an undoubtedly desirable goal,” the Court said, “but press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution and like many other virtues it cannot be legislated” (p. 256). In contrast to the more contentious Near and New York Times cases, the Court ruled unanimously in Miami Herald.

A related critique comes from economics. Fengler and Russ-Mohl (2008) attempted to explain journalism using rational choice theory to determine what journalists do as rational, self-interested actors. Journalists, under their view, seek primarily prestige and attention, not to serve citizens in a democracy. Baron (2006) similarly suggested that journalists have an incentive to shape their stories to further their career prospects (p. 10).

Boyd-Barrett (2004), meanwhile, argued that some journalists are not uncontrollably influenced by undemocratic incentives, but instead are intentionally compromised. Boyd-Barrett focused specifically on the relationship between Judith Miller and Bush administration officials around the time Miller reported on weapons of mass destruction for The New York Times before the Iraq War.

Unlike Barron’s focus on abstract economic motivations, in Boyd-Barrett’s model some reporters consciously cultivate relationships that influence their writing. Indeed, the Central Intelligence Agency has acknowledged striking covert agreements with reporters to gain their cooperation (Holt, 1995, p. 174).

Admittedly, the critiques of the economists and of Boyd-Barrett take on journalists based on what they actually do, not on what they ought do. But there are at least two ways to view these studies relative to this thesis. One is as fellow travelers in questioning journalism’s actual contribution to democracy in the face of journalists’ stated goals. Another is as important sources of context, in that these studies address what a fair critique of journalism is. This thesis proposes to critique journalists on how they live up to a standard related to democracy. The above attacks, on what journalists actually do, suggest that this plan unfairly asks journalists to meet that standard.[2]

This section has outlined what journalists’ goals are in a democracy. To critique journalism on whether it meets its democratic goals requires a way to actually measure whether journalists accomplish their tasks. One method of measurement uses theories of argumentation and informal logic.

Argumentation and informal logic are dedicated to helping determine the form and quality of arguments such as those put forward by journalists. Citizens using these theories would not want to base their decisions in a democracy on unsound arguments. The next section, then, will turn to an introduction to those fields.

Argumentation theory and Stephen Toulmin

Argumentation theory is concerned with understanding claims made and defended in the everyday world, where actual people do not always conform to the rules of formal logic.

Van Eemeren, Grootendorst, and Henkemans (1996) defined argumentation as an “activity of reason aimed at increasing (or decreasing) the acceptability of a controversial standpoint … by putting forward a constellation of propositions intended to justify (or refute) the standpoint before a rational judge” (p. 5). Argumentation theory itself examines “the production, analysis, and evaluation of argumentative discourse” (p. 12).

Modern argumentation theory developed out of ancient Greek work on rhetoric and logic (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 29; Benoit, 1992). These Greeks began questioning conventional thought on ethics and metaphysics. Those who argued about the subjects discovered the usefulness of being able to offer both “good” (sound) arguments and “persuasive” arguments in a new climate of competing opinions.

Classical logic, dialectic, and rhetoric developed out of this time of questioning (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 31). Aristotle’s work on logic is, of course, foundational, but the efforts of supporting characters such as Gorgias, Protagoras, and Hermagoras also shaped logic and rhetoric (Benoit, 1992).

After the Greeks, however, finding the most important work in argumentation requires a millennia-long leap. Only in the last century or so did argumentation theory evolve into its own domain, with goals adjacent but not parallel to its classical origins (see the leap in Benoit, 1992, pp. 56–57, or from chapters three to four in van Eemeren et al., 1996; but see Finocchiaro, 1997, arguing for the importance in argumentation of the French Port-Royal Logic of the 17th century).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some educators argued for a more realistic understanding of rhetoric and argument (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 51). Yost (1917) and Woolbert (1917) attacked the traditional distinction between “conviction,” a supposedly logical process, and “persuasion,” an emotional process. They argued that the distinction failed in the face of new perspectives of human complexity, with Yost drawing from sociology and Woolbert from psychology. On the backs of these arguments, and propelled by the awful and illogical inhumanity of the First World War, some pushed for a full rewrite of argumentation theory and pedagogy (for example, Rowell, 1932).

Still, van Eemeren et al. (1996) said that the study of argumentation was “dominated by the classical tradition inherited from antiquity” until the 1950s (p. 51), when the contours of modern argumentation theory begin appearing (Gronbeck (1992) placed the beginning of argumentation’s “identity crisis” later, in the mid–1960s, but in either case the point remains).

Modern argumentation theory begins with a particular concern for the way humans actually argue in daily life — how they take stances on issues.

To begin with, humans argue about certain kinds of issues: Generally, controversial ones. “A person is in an argumentative situation when he [or she] addresses himself persuasively to an idea against which objections are likely to be in his audience’s minds,” said Black (1965, pp. 149–150), in one of the early field-altering works (Gronbeck, 1992, p. 18; on controversy as part of argumentation, see also van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 12).

The existence of controversy — and hence counterarguments — says something about the kind of situation arguers enter: one in which getting one’s way isn’t the goal. Johnstone, Jr. (1965) said that to claim that argument is futile because of the persistence of counterarguments misses the point; it would be to claim that argument functions to force something upon another. But argument is a means for exploring the world, not a power grab. Through argument, humans embrace the possibilities for creating consensus and confronting complexity in human affairs through a process by which no absolute force may be applied (Cherwitz & Darwin, 1995).

How can one conduct this process of testing views? On one hand, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1965) noted, there already exists a “well-defined science” of demonstrating proof: logic. But on the other hand, they continued, “a great many of the proofs utilized in law, ethics, philosophy, political debate, and daily life cannot be considered relevant to logic in the strict sense” (p. 102). Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, then, highlight two of the key foci of argumentation: everyday argument and the capabilities of ordinary humans, even those engaged in serious debate.

Subsequent research and theory in argumentation solidified the field’s humanistic tendencies (on humanism in particular, see Boger, 2006). Brockriede (1975) began his “search” for argument by immediately stating a bias “that denies an interest in logical systems, in messages, in reasoning, in evidence, or in propositions — unless these things involve human activity rather directly” (p. 179, his emphasis). Argument, he says, involves people making an “inferential leap” (p. 180) toward the adoption or reinforcement of beliefs about nontrivial problems in the presence of uncertainty and possible confrontation.

Brockriede (1975) also said argument involves the need to choose among competing claims while restrained “by what [people] know, what they believe … by how they relate to other people and to situations … by cause and by chance” (p. 181). This mood of inevitability, the need to get on with it in less than optimal situations, will be important for argument, critical thinking, and the application of both to journalism.

Brockriede’s concern for argument as actually practiced led to an important distinction from O’Keefe (1977). O’Keefe said a field dedicated to everyday argumentation must also concern itself with the two everyday senses of the word “argumentation.” He called them “argument (1)” and “argument (2).” Arguments (1) are positions. They are arguments “that” something, like “my argument is that he’s crooked.” Arguments (2) are arguments “about” something, like “they argued about who would wash the dishes.”

O’Keefe’s distinction is so influential that writers in the field are expected to clarify which sense of “argument” they mean to discuss (Burleson, 1979, p. 140; for example, Wangerin, 1993, p. 196). This paper will focus only on arguments (1) — such as the argument of a journalist “that the mayor is crooked.”

A hostility in argumentation theory to formal logic has already been noted in Brockriede (1975) and Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1965). Chittleborough and Newman (1993) also posited that “formal deductive logic” is of “grossly limited applicability … to arguments as they actually occur in the ‘real world’” (p. 189).

Although the strongest response to the inadequacy of formal logic comes from the field of informal logic, to be discussed infra, it is crucial to note that argumentation and formal logic are similarly at odds.

Modern argumentation theorists explicitly distance themselves from formal logic. “Argumentation theorists study the way in which people take up standpoints and defend those standpoints, whereas logicians tend to concentrate on the way in which conclusions are derived from premises” (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 6). Through the transformation of everyday discourse into abstract premises, logicians “[disregard] the actual reasoning processes and the contextual surroundings in which they take place,” (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 6).

This is not to say that formal logic has no use or that logicians have not attempted to respond to the critiques of argumentation theorists. Rather, “in the view of the many complexities involved in studying argumentative discourse, it seems best to aspire to a sensible division of labor” (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 12).

Argumentation is concerned not only with how people actually argue, but also with how consumers of argument ought interpret arguments given the rarity with which they conform to strict logical validity. The answer used in this thesis to the question of interpretation comes from Stephen Toulmin.

The Toulmin model

Toulmin, “perhaps the pre-eminent modern figure in the field of argumentation theory” (Wangerin, 1993, pp. 202–203; see also Loui, 2005), made his seminal contribution to the field in his book The Uses of Argument (1958). He proposed a model of argumentation that attempted to account for arguments’ everyday use. After Toulmin, argumentation theorists could no longer understand arguments as a list of P’s and Q’s leading to validity or invalidity. This paper will attempt to place journalists’ arguments into the model, which will be outlined below.[3]

The Toulmin model begins with claims (C), or “conclusion[s] whose merits we are seeking to establish,” and data (D), “the facts we appeal to as a foundation for the claim” (p. 97).

When prodded to answer, “how do the data lead you to the claim?” an arguer turns to warrants (W) — “general, hypothetical statements, which can act as bridges, and authorise the sort of step to which our particular argument commits us” (p. 98).

The skeleton Toulmin model, then — presented with Toulmin’s own sample argument — is:

  1. Data (“Harry was born in Bermuda.”)

  2. Since warrant (Since “a man born in Bermuda will be a British subject.”)

  3. So claim (“Harry is a British subject.”) (p. 99)

Toulmin then proceeded beyond the syllogism. He noted that arguers assign varying degrees of certainty or force to their claims — they say “likely,” “probably,” and so on. The model accounts for these as qualifiers (Q). Qualifiers, in turn, imply the existence of conditions in which warrants would not lead to the claim. Toulmin represents these conditions as rebuttals (R).

The beefier model becomes:

  1. Data (“Harry was born in Bermuda”)

  2. Since warrant (Since “a man born in Bermuda will generally be a British subject”)

  3. So, qualifier (“So, presumably”)

    • Unless rebuttal (“Unless both his parents were aliens / he has become a naturalised American / …”)

  4. Claim (p. 101) (“Harry is a British subject”)

Lastly, Toulmin discussed what happens when the general authority of a warrant is challenged, which endangers “the legitimacy of a whole range of arguments” (p. 103). In these situations, arguers refer to backing (B) to defend their warrants. Backing can, in turn, be a new set of facts or arguments requiring defense if attacked, but it is the backing’s purpose of giving authority to the warrant at issue that concerns Toulmin.

Backing completes the model:

  1. Data

  2. Since warrant

    • On account of backing (“On account of the following statutes and other legal provisions:”)

  3. So, qualifier

    • Unless rebuttal

  4. Claim (p. 105, in which the model is actually modeled)

Hitchcock and Verheij (2005) summarized Toulmin’s (1958) main ideas as follows:

  1. Reasoning and argument involve not only support for points of view, but also attack against them.
  2. Reasoning can have qualified conclusions.
  3. There are other good types of argument than those of standard formal logic.
  4. Unstated assumptions linking premisses to a conclusion are better thought of as inference licenses than as implicit premisses.
  5. Standards of reasoning can be field-dependent, and can themselves be the subject of argumentation. (p. 255)

Points (1) and (2) are contained in Toulmin’s provision for rebuttals and qualifiers; point (4) refers to warrants.

Points (3) and (5) refer to Toulmin presenting his model as a response to what he saw as failings of standard logic, particularly formal validity. Formal validity, according to Toulmin, is “practically irrelevant to the evaluation of the soundness of argumentation, whether in everyday life or in the academic disciplines” (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 133).

Moreover, he says, rational judgment is not universal; although the procedure for conducting an argument can follow standard forms (and hence the model), “the specific soundness conditions of the field or subject” differ (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 133, emphasis theirs).

A good argument in political science is not the same as a good argument in physics — or, for that matter, journalism. The standards differ. They are “field-dependent.” The differences in standards manifest themselves in the model primarily as warrants. What constitutes an acceptable warrant (and backing), according to Toulmin, differs by field.[4]

The Toulmin model of argumentation provides a structure for journalistic argument. It has been applied to a range of fields, including mathematics (Aberdein, 2005) and conflict resolution (Simosi, 2003). It has also been applied to fields of communication such as advertising (Ripley, 2008).

Critiques of the model tend to focus on a few shortcomings. One critique is that Toulmin played fast and loose with language, such as with qualifiers such as “presumably” (Verheij, 2005, p. 355) and with more important terms such as “valid” and “validity” (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 155). Toulmin’s flabby explication even led Hample (1977) to argue that some of Toulmin’s crucial distinctions, such as that between warrant and backing, lack differences.

Freeman (2006) also discussed limitations of the model stemming from Toulmin’s prose. The examples in The Uses of Argument, Freeman said, are singular statements (“x is y,” or “Harry is a British citizen”); so the model should be considered applicable to only those statements, and not, say, generalizations — which isn’t to claim singular statements are small potatoes (similarly, see Wangerin, 1993).

A second critique, or set of critiques, comes from the logicians and philosophers whom Toulmin targeted. They “combined their reviews of The Uses of Argument often with an almost passionate ‘defense of logic’” (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 131; a bibliography of logic’s defenders is at note 3 of that page). Cooley (1959) for example, criticized the “Harry is a British citizen” example that Toulmin frequently uses. “Very little appears to be at stake” in both that example and others ones in the book, Cooley wrote, calling the “level of importance” of the model into question (p. 311).

Third, criticism has been thrust upon the model itself. Hample (1977), as said, criticized some of Toulmin’s distinctions. Ball (1994) said that the model could not be used on complex policy arguments without a specialized computer program (which Ball happened to have at hand). Otherwise, Bell said, tracking the data, warrants, and claims of a complex argument would overwhelm. Willard (1976), meanwhile, laid a general attack on all attempts to diagram arguments on charges of inadequate attention to the psychology of human complexity, as well as an inevitable degree of guesswork in interpretation.[5]

Finally, the Toulmin model has been criticized for lacking a replacement for logical validity as a means of evaluating arguments (for example, Ball, 1994, p. 30; van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 158). Toulmin (1958) did not consider how to react to arguments conceptualized using his model, and his later work, which proposed such evaluative criteria, has been called “underdeveloped” (Hitchcock, 2005, p. 373).

This paper will attempt to compensate for Toulmin’s lack of evaluative criteria through a third branch of theory: informal logic and its sister field, critical thinking.

Informal logic and critical thinking

Informal logic and critical thinking are of even more recent vintage than argumentation as fields unto themselves. They developed earnestly beginning in only the 1970s (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 166; Hitchcock, 1996, p. 273; but see Pomeroy, 1983, for clues to informal logic’s philosophical predecessors). Their boundaries — even their names — remain unclear after many decades and attempts at clarification (Johnson, 2006; Scriven, 1987).

Informal logic develops concepts for an ethical appraisal of real-world arguments. It relates to both philosophy and formal logic by way of its concern for epistemology, justification and argument structure (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 164).

But as with argumentation, informal logic proudly proclaims its goals to be practical above all:

It is the branch [of logic] that takes argumentation as its focus, particularly the argumentation of nontechnical everyday discourse and discourse about issues in the polis. … [It insists] on taking as its point of departure the natural language argumentation of the “market place” and the political arena. (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 164)

Informal logic divides into two broad categories. The first category, which this thesis will not draw on extensively, concerns the proper way to reconstruct an argument for analysis (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 175). Such inquiries are related to theoretical models such as Toulmin’s, but focus specifically on dissecting arguments into premises that could fit into those models.

The challenge of dissection at issue in this first category is not merely whether to use numbers, arrows, or some other method to display arguments. The challenge also encompasses how to parse, for example, extended real-world arguments for which an attempt to distinguish and number “premises” would quickly stupefy an analyst (Rothbart, 1983).

More fundamental challenges of dissection include those of interpretation. Informal logicians have energetically debated the proper scope of the principle of charity (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 177; for example, Scriven, 1976, p. 71). How should one ethically and accurately (Berg, 1992; Fowler, 2008) translate arguments into premises for analysis? For example, 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 the strongest argument possible for critique (Hitchcock, 1996, p. 283; Walters, 1994)?

The second category of informal logic study concerns the questions: “How good is this argument?” and “How can we judge the argument without recourse to formal logic?” (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 177). Although theory from this second category clearly builds on the first category of reconstructing arguments, it is the second category that will drive the analysis of journalistic argument in this thesis because the quality of journalistic argument is most relevant for someone attempting to use journalism to make decisions in a democracy.

On what standards can “How good is this argument?” be judged? Fallacy theory seeks to provide those standards. Fallacies can be broadly defined as “violation[s] of one of the criteria of a good argument.” They

stem from a structural flaw in the argument, from the irrelevance of a premise, from the unacceptability of a premise, from the insufficiency of the combined premises of an argument to establish a conclusion, or from the failure to give an effective rebuttal. (Damer, 2005, p. 43)

Fallacy theory has yet to determine the shape and scope of fallacies (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 181), and quite a bit of research in the field probes “known” fallacies, such as appeals to authority (Walton, 1997) or begging the question (Walton, 2005). For example, it is generally accepted that “fallacious” reasoning is not always harmful to an argument (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 181). So, scholars have questioned when, say, appeals to authority are acceptable (Hardwig, 1985; Cederblom and Paulsen, 1988) and the assumptions about expertise inherent in such judgments (Haskell, 1984).[6]

Still other research investigates “new” fallacies or refinements of existing ones. For example, Leddy (1986) concluded that the “fallacy of small sample” was insufficiently complex and should be replaced by a fallacy of “sample too small to be representative” (“The suggestion … may be minor but it is hardly terminological,” Leddy wrote) (p. 56; see also Damer, 2005, p. 142, Browne & Keeley, 2004, p. 124). Pole (1980) plunged into fallacies of composition and division and emerged with the “camel’s back fallacy,” “flunking student’s fallacy,” and “salesman’s fallacy.”[7]

However, some critique the very concept of fallacy (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 180).[8] Finocchiaro (1981) claimed that fallacies usually do not exist as such, but are instead the creation of unfair interpretations of arguments by respondents (pp. 17–18). He did not mean by this that errors in reasoning were uncommon, but instead that there are no common errors in reasoning that could be grouped (p. 15).

Govier (1983) challenged Finocchiaro with not providing sufficient empirical evidence to back his claim, and Jason (1987) later attempted to quantify the frequency of fallacies by examining presidential debates. Govier (1983) has also responded to critiques that fallacies, although technically “real,” are better described as errors in formal logic such that straining to add classifications of fallacy is wasteful.

Even a adherent of fallacy theory, however, must admit that there is no consensus in the field regarding the proper labeling of errors as one fallacy or another. One theorist’s ad hominem is another’s red herring. For consistency, then, this thesis will rely on one set of classifications, that of Damer (2005). Damer provides an extensive list of fallacies and examples of their use. He also helpfully suggests constructive responses to someone using any of the fallacies he outlines. These responses might have some pedagogical use for engaging with reporters about fallacies, if any, in their stories.

Critical thinking

Informal logic provides tools for evaluating arguments. Critical thinking, though sometimes seen as synonymous with informal logic, is more precisely an extension of its tools.

Theories of critical thinking provide methods for engaging with a world in which writers in “textbooks, magazines, and on the Internet … present ideas they want us to accept” (Browne & Keeley, 2004, p. 2). Critical thinking promotes an “intellectual habit and educational ideal” (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 187) for answering perhaps the most practical intellectual problem: deciding “which conclusions to accept, which to reject, and which to study further before committing to a decision” given frequent attempts on our beliefs (Browne & Keeley, 2004, p. 2).

In other words: What should I think? What should we do, and based on what reasons?

A critical thinking approach to arguments includes examining them for harmful fallacies. But critical thinking also includes questions such as:

  • What are the issues and the conclusions?
  • Which words or phrases are ambiguous?
  • Are there rival causes?
  • How good is the evidence?
  • What significant information is omitted?
  • What reasonable conclusions are possible? (Browne & Keeley, 2004, p. 13).

Importantly for this paper, Browne and Keeley (2004) also distinguished between “prescriptive” and “descriptive” issues, or arguments. “Prescriptive issues are those that raise questions about what we should do or what is right or wrong” (p. 17). By contrast, descriptive issues and questions are those that “demand answers that attempt to describe the way the world is, was, or is going to be” (p. 17).

The critical questions primarily involved in addressing prescriptive or descriptive arguments differ slightly; in any case, this thesis addresses the arguments offered by journalists about the way the world is, was, or will be — journalists’ descriptive arguments.

The height of applying these critical questions is not in the protection of one’s beliefs against threats to them, but in examining both the beliefs and the threats. “Strong-sense critical thinking requires us to apply the critical questions to all claims, including our own” (Browne & Keeley, 2004, p. 10, emphasis theirs).

Putting it together

Theories from journalism, argumentation, and informal logic and critical thinking have been presented. How do they relate?

One’s beliefs shape one’s choices in a democracy. The information received from journalists should, they say, shape our beliefs. Argumentation, informal logic, and critical thinking are a suite of theories and tools with which one can approach and evaluate the ideas and conclusions of those seeking to alter one’s beliefs, including journalists.

The next section develops a fuller justification of the use of these three fields to evaluate journalism. It is followed by a review of literature that falls at the intersection of argumentation, informal logic, and journalism.

Applying argumentation and informal logic to journalism

Perhaps the most fundamental assumption of this thesis is that the bulk of what journalists do is to present descriptive arguments. News headlines help illustrate the point:

  • “High-end medical option prompts Medicare worries”
  • “As many as 1,000 killed in Ivory Coast town, Red Cross says”
  • “Budget Battle to Be Followed by an Even Bigger Fight”

These are stories about the way the world is, was, or will be. Some people are worried about Medicare; many people were killed in Africa; there will be a political fight about a particular topic.

If journalism primarily consists of offering descriptive arguments about the world, as these headlines suggest, and if critical thinking addresses descriptive arguments, then journalism can be analyzed and judged using the tools of critical thinking. Applying critical thinking skills to journalism means asking the critical questions sketched above — how good is the evidence? What are the descriptive assumptions? And so on.

Each of these questions moves a critical thinker towards accepting, or rejecting as incomplete, the conclusions in an argument. By accepting only claims that meet a particular standard, the critical questions assist people who have to make decisions while they continually confront information relevant to those decisions.

Citizens in a democracy face many decisions. In a democracy, they get to choose which people and ideas they support. What should they choose?

Enter journalism and its theory of democracy. Under its theory, journalism’s raison d’etre is to provide information vital to this choosing process. Journalists justify their work through its contribution of information relevant to decision-making in democracy.

So the tools of critical thinking theory apply to journalistic discourse — that is, descriptive arguments. Not only that, but journalists themselves should want and expect critical thinking skills to be applied to their work so that the democratic intentions driving it can be pursued. It is no accident that the early argumentation theorists promoted “argumentative discourse to broaden and secure a more democratic society” (Boger, 2006, p. 152).

Critical thinking draws on informal logic, and so shall this thesis, with an emphasis on fallacies. The existence of errors in reasoning tips off audiences to reasons for which one would potentially, though not certainly, reject a conclusion of a journalist.

Argumentation theory, while not necessarily commenting on the acceptability of arguments, assists in providing a clear statement of them. The Toulmin model is one of many models offered by argumentation as a means of mapping arguments. This thesis will use it because of its ubiquity and apparently broad applicability. There do not, however, appear to be any scholarly attempts to apply the model to journalism, and a secondary goal of this paper is to test the model’s fit for journalistic argument.

There is a final reason for thinking argumentation and informal logic apply in particular to journalism: Their explicit focus on analyzing everyday, imperfect argumentation born out of particular contexts. Argumentation and informal logic utilize ideas that target how real people work and the moments when they must decide and act, in situations where they are expected to use methods other than force to affect their interlocutors.

Concurrently, journalism fashions itself as the “first draft of history.” Its imperfections have perfectly reasonable explanations — deadlines, reticent sources, and the like — but they are imperfections all the same. Comparing the writing of journalism to that of law, Gale (1980) said: “The excellent … journalistic report, does not eschew the techniques of reason. But it does not require their use, their expression, or their ordering in the same sense” (p. 307).

So applying the complex, exacting tools of formal logic to evaluate journalism would be unfair. Argumentation, critical thinking, and informal logic are more appropriate for evaluating journalism because they agreeably meet journalism on its pockmarked turf and happily play by its pragmatic rules. This probably explains in part why attempts to bring critical thinking into the journalism classroom have been made (for example, Shoemaker, 1993).

The next section investigates previous literature applying argumentation, informal logic, and critical thinking to journalism. Not much literature explicitly applies the theories to journalism, but their concepts and questions are often addressed.

Literature review

Scholars in journalism frequently approach the kinds of questions of interest to informal logicians,[9] and informal logicians comment on those questions in regard to journalism, but both sides often use different language. Studies of journalism and argumentation, however, are less frequent.

This section first notes applications of argumentation theory to journalism and a study of journalism applicable to argumentation. It then reviews several topics of interest to both journalism scholars and informal logicians, including fallacy theory, bias, and objectivity,


Kruse (2001) studied symbolism in French and German newspaper coverage of an environmental crisis. In language evocative of what might be a framing analysis in mass communication discourse (Tewksbury & Scheufele, 2009), Kruse examines common themes in the stories, in particular their metaphors, to determine the positions on the crisis they evoke in readers. She concludes that the themes of the articles constitute arguments.

Brossmann and Canary (1990) focused more on arguments (2) — arguments “about” something — in their quantitative analysis of “Nightline” debates. They counted the frequency of particular argumentative moves by the moderator and participants, although their classification of the moves was purely descriptive. Richardson (2001) employed theories from van Eemeren and Toulmin in the service of uncovering racism within letters to the editor published in British newspapers.

From journalism, Barnhurst and Mutz’s (1997) content analysis of changes in what constituted “news” from 1894 to 1994 implicated argumentation. For example, they found that “journalists identified individuals less often by name and more often by demographic group. Fewer ordinary people played roles as actors and victims, replaced by a cast of official sources, outside experts, and commentators” (p. 40). The changes Barnhust and Mutz discuss affect the arguments journalists present, and the warrants and backing needed to demonstrate them. For example, referring more often to groups increases the likelihood that journalists’ arguments will require backing to defend against claims of overgeneralization.

Similarly, Schudson (1982), studying press coverage of State of the Union addresses, found that “the reporting of the presidential message [since 1790] became more interpretative, more divorced from what an ordinary observer could safely assert the message said or that Congress itself heard” (p. 100). Schudson correctly notes that “this has not made reporting less truthful,” but it also raises the stakes for journalists: They must appeal to more than their senses to demonstrate the truth of what they write.

Argument (0) and epistemology

Some years after the initial exchange between Brockriede and O’Keefe, Hample (1985) submitted a challenge to O’Keefe’s “argument (1)” and “argument (2).” Hample criticized O’Keefe for neglecting a third form of “argument,” which Hample considered “foundational” to both O’Keefe’s distinction and argumentation in general (p. 2).

Hample’s form of the term “argument” considered the cognitive elements of both giving and receiving arguments. Arguers must, for example, use cognitive processes related to storing and retrieving the data used in arguments, or even noticing the need for an argument at all (p. 2). Hample termed this dimension of argument “arguments (0)” (p. 2; for a fuller introduction to the Brockriede-O’Keefe-Hample exchange, see Benoit, Hample, & Benoit, 1992).[10]

Scholars have asked “argument (0)”-type questions about journalists: How do journalists know when it’s time for an article? When is the article ready? When has the story run its course? In other words, how do journalists decide an argument is needed?

Many stories come to journalists through established channels such as press releases, news conferences, scheduled meetings, and the like (Gans, 1980, for example pp. 121–124; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009, p. 54). But the inspiration for investigative journalism often arrives more serendipitously — through chance, an anonymous tip, or, as one journalist interviewed by Ettema and Glasser (1998) put it, “my nostrils dilate or something” (p. 23).

Research and critique on “when is the article ready?” often focus on traditional notions of objectivity and “getting both sides.” The story is “ready” when “both sides” have their say. The objectivity doctrine itself today faces increasing scrutiny in online journalism (Singer, 2010; Carr, 2010). But traditionally, objectivity and “both sides” reporting has been criticized for its false dichotomies (Govier, 1988) or its tendency to sap a certain sense of responsibility from reporters such that they feel uninterested in critically examining claims in their stories before publishing them (Glasser, 1992, p. 180).

Additional research has examined how journalists, having decided a story is warranted, attempt to demonstrate their claims. In other words, they look at journalists’ epistemology, at the types of evidence used to show they know what they know. For example, journalists’ adherence to eyewitness and firsthand accounts, an offshoot of “naive empiricism” (Mindich, 1998, pp. 2–6), has been questioned in light of modern research into cognitive processes (Stocking & Gross, 1989; more generally, Schacter, 1997, 2001).

More recently, journalists have agonized about whether and how to incorporate online communities into their work. The use of experts has generally been seen as a way for journalists to buttress their preexisting conclusions about a story, as well as a way for journalists to hammer out what exactly their conclusions will be (Albaek, 2011, pp. 338–339). Journalists traditionally have seen expertise as emanating from those in “real world” institutions such as government or think tanks (Steele, 1995). The dynamics of online networks, however, create more pressure on journalists to treat contributions from “regular” people on blogs or social networks as equally demonstrative as those from experts. Journalists are adapting to these dynamics at varying speeds (Ingram, 2011a; Jha, 2008).


A few writers explicitly address news and fallacies.[11]

Buss and Hofstetter (1977) analyzed the “logical structure” of political news on television (p. 341). They counted the frequency of fallacies (they called them “idiosyncracies”) used by CBS, ABC, and NBC, including argumentum ad populum and ad hominem. They stopped at description; their analysis did not comment on whether the fallacies should have led viewers to accept or reject the reports.

Douglas Walton’s long career of studying fallacies also has import for journalism. Journalism might be likely to use some fallacies more often, such as arguments from authority (to be discussed at greater length below) and straw-man arguments resulting from quotations (Walton & Macagno, 2011). Walton’s work investigates the structure fallacies and the situations in which their use might not be improper (or when they are especially harmful).

From journalism, Merrill and Odell (1983) wrote a textbook to introduce philosophical subjects relevant to journalism students, including rhetoric, logic, and epistemology. “No one doubts that many of our journalists reason imprecisely and fallaciously,” they wrote (p. 3). Incidentally, they reject the concept of fallacies, thinking of them as misnomers for formal fallacies, but use the term anyway “only because there is a tradition of doing so” (p. 15). But despite their efforts, complaints persist that journalists allow interviewees to hold forth fallaciously, unchallenged (Stoff, 2008).

Additionally, some fallacies attract increased attention online. Of late, Jay Rosen has attacked what he calls the “linkless hypebuster” — articles supposedly debunking something without linking to any examples of the arguments in question (Rosen, 2011). “Linkless hypebuster” is, of course, another name for a straw-man argument.

Arguments from authority

Arguments from authority will prove to play an important role in the analysis of stories in this thesis, so the subject merits some additional notes on literature raising key questions about the argument’s use and misuse.

The pervasiveness of authorities in modern life extends beyond their role in democracies. There is no escaping the need for and reliance on them, be it politicians who call on experts in policy choices or scholars-in-training who gratefully hand car keys to mechanics. But there are questions to ask in deciding whether to accept an appeal to an authority.

First, what is an appeal to authority and when is it fallacious? Embedded in the question are two assumptions, of course: that appeals to authority are not necessarily fallacious at the outset, and that it’s possible to determine who is or isn’t an authority.

Walton (1997), who dedicated a book to the matter, defined several forms of arguments from authority (or “appeals to expert opinion”) and questions applicable to assessing them in various contexts. Browne and Keeley (2004), focusing on when the appeal is a fallacy, call “Appeals to Questionable Authority” those that “[support] a conclusion by citing an authority who lacks special expertise on the issue at hand” (p. 90). Damer, similarly focusing on deciding when to challenge appeals to authority, defines the fallacy of Irrelevant Authority as “attempting to support a claim by appealing to the judgment of one who is not an authority in the field, the judgment of an unidentified authority, or the judgment of an authority who is likely to be biased” (2005, p. 79).

For Walton, Browne and Keeley, and Damer, then, appeals to authority are not necessarily fallacious. Each specifies conditions under which an appeal becomes more problematic or more acceptable. For Browne and Keeley, an appeal to authority is fallacious “unless we know that these authorities have special knowledge about [the] issue” (p. 89). For Damer, an appeal is fallacious if the authority is not actually authoritative, unidentified, or prone to bias.

The means of invoking authority are also important. Of particular interest for journalists are the implications of using quotations as support for arguments from authority. Walton and Macagno (2011) argue that the use of quotations in arguments from authority inspires a fresh set of criteria for the recipient to use in evaluation, such as whether the quoted expert’s view is consistent with other experts’. They also cast doubt on the power of anonymous or obscured sources:

The author is concealed and simply defined as “official source”, “scientists”, “knowledgeable”, or with other epithets and attributes that can seem to strengthen the argument. A proper shifting of commitment based on expert opinion requires that the authority be named, and not merely made implicit without any name or institution being specifically quoted. (31)

The question of whether arguments from authority are appropriate is ancient, like so many others in this thesis. Hyslop (1899) provided a different set of criteria for when the argument was acceptable, namely when all sides agreed on the authority of the person cited (pp. 175–176). Willard (1990), while examining the necessity and role of experts in modern public life, is less forgiving: “the Medieval logicians’ chief reason for seeing the argument-from-authority as a fallacy still holds: to invoke authority is to abort debate” (p. 18).

But the acceptability, or at least the rhetorical effect, of appeals to some authorities depends on more than determining for oneself who qualifies as “experts” or even agreeing with an opponent on that score. The use of someone from the professional class as an authority can require assumptions. According to Haskell (1984), one assumption is that members of a professional class act dispassionately and that they place the common good over their self-interest. Haskell’s essay indicates that different generations will think differently about that assumption. The thinkers he reviews — R.H. Tawney, Emile Durkheim, and C.S. Peirce — believed very different things about self-serving experts than do many people today. Over time, then, whether an appeal to authority “aborts debate” might be more or less true.

Sometimes, though, a non-expert confronts authority not through an interlocutor’s appeal, but via the purported authority herself — such as a journalist claiming authority about a heavily researched topic. The need to examine and act on the argument of an authority raises other difficult questions for non-experts. How can a layperson judge an authority’s claim? How can a layperson choose among competing expert claims about a subject? Scholars continue to conjure classifications of experts and techniques for evaluating the claims of each (for example, Collins & Weinel, 2011).

One possible response is to individually try to reduce dependency on experts. Cederblom and Paulsen (1988) advocated becoming generally familiar with as many subjects as possible. Cultivating a fox-like approach to learning decreases individual dependence on experts from different fields, even if only slightly, and can preserve a degree of autonomy in a process of self-realization.

Another possible response is to accept the limits of individual rationality. Hardwig (1985) approached arguments from authority from a broader critique of individualism. He argued that the notion that individuals should come to their own conclusions about expert authority is romantic but ultimately unrealistic. Trusting authorities to have conducted the research necessary for their claim is sufficient grounds to accept the claim, he said, especially when laypeople could not hope to conduct the research themselves.[12]

Assumptions and bias

The concept of assumptions — unstated prescriptive or descriptive premises needed for an argument to be true (Browne & Keeley, 2004, pp. 53–55)[13] — is crucial to informal logic and critical thinking. Assumptions are one of the more popular topics in journalism, where they are more commonly called biases.

From informal logic, O’Halloran (2009) argued that news media attune their audiences to implicit premises over time through coverage of a topic. Claims in previous articles, he said, will be internalized by regular audiences and applied to future articles. This turns what might have been “explanations” in news articles into “arguments” in the minds of audiences while simultaneously giving the newspaper plausible deniability against claims of bias.

Also from informal logic, Dorman (1988) criticized American mass media coverage of Iran and the Soviet Union. He found the coverage to use loaded language that contained assumptions about the demerits of those countries and their leaders, and to not question positions of the U.S. government.

Similarly, McMurtry (1988) and Ulrich (1992) discussed unasked questions in mass media about topics such as capitalism, along with mass media’s assumptions favoring political centrism, if not conservatism. McMurtry referred to the system of assumptions as an “underlying system of fallacy” in the media (p. 134). Ulrich was more charitable, arguing that the journalists, like all people, must operate under some assumptions and that there was nothing particularly egregious about the ones McMurtry noted. Eide (2007) later addressed mass media assumptions from the perspective of how journalists themselves think about the world.

Meanwhile, mass media’s general acceptance of capitalism and centrism is a perennial topic of journalism studies. Hallin’s (1986) spheres of legitimate controversy, consensus, and deviance are another form of describing unstated assumptions in mass media that must hold for the arguments in those media to make sense (p. 116). And, as with Ulrich, mass communication scholars note that even non-mainstream journalism must carry at least some assumptions that can be questioned (Atton, 2008).

Scholars spend a great deal of time attempting to explain these biases. Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) famous Propaganda Model attributed the news’ favoring official positions to journalists’ reliance on, for example, the subsidies of government press agents.[14] Baker (1995) argued that the media’s reliance on advertising forced them to maintain a “buying mood” in their content (p. 44) and avoid attacking the political (meaning capitalistic) boat.

Steele (1995) argued, in part through interviews with producers, that a preference for “real world” experience leads TV news to favor commentators from think tanks or government, with their attendant assumptions, over academics or left-wing sources. Writers from both informal logic (for example, Govier, 1988) and journalism (for example, Glasser, 1992; Cockburn, 1982) have also covered concepts of objectivity and “both sides” journalism as carrying assumptions or biases.

Language and ambiguity

Loaded language has been discussed as part of Dorman’s (1988) broader critique; ambiguous language in general has warranted discussion on its own in informal logic (Browne & Keeley, 2004, p. 37).

MacIntosh (1988), for example, criticized the media’s use of “nuclear war” as immorally masking truths about the nature of nuclear weapons. In journalism, recently Desai et al. (2010) found a decrease in the description of waterboarding as “torture” in American media after 2004. Neither Desai et al. nor Dorman directly commented on fallacies, but the absence of information about nuclear weapons or waterboarding that might influence whether someone accepts or rejects a journalistic argument falls under the critical thinking question of “What significant information is omitted?” (Browne & Keeley, 2004, p. 165) and, potentially, fallacies of missing evidence (Damer, 2005, p. 141).

An interesting subset of research in argumentation and informal logic of journalism discusses journalism’s tendency to argue “by suggestion.” For example, Marlin (1984) suggested that verbs in newspaper headlines (“fled,” “fouls up”) can be dangerously ambiguous. Such ambiguity communicates by suggestion, acting as a “very effective form of propaganda that [does] not state explicitly what it wishes the hearer to believe” (p. 28).

May (1988) offered a more complete argument. He discussed “invited inferences,” defined as “suggestions or pragmatic meanings” prompted by certain kinds of speech (p. 114). Audiences are invited, even encouraged, May said, to not approach ambiguities in reporting:

Scarcely a day passes without deadpan accounts of words uttered by buildings (the White House, Whitehall, the Kremlin, the Quai d’Orsay), by cities (Beijing, Moscow), by companies (“Chrysler announced … ”), by circles (“scientific circles said … ”), and by other putatively vociferating entities. Although we understand the terms used (and thus do not think of resorting to dictionaries), we are hard pressed to grasp the sense of what is being expressed. And yet we feel that there must be a sense, and a common sense at that, else the expression would not be used so persistently. This feeling is fortified by the omission of explicit translations of figurative expressions. The resulting insinuation is that translation would be superfluous. (p. 117, emphasis his)

Glasser and Ettema (1993) approached the power of suggestion from the side of journalism in their analysis of the use of irony in news. Irony, which disguises an author’s intended conclusion through the use of seemingly opposite language, speaks to savvy, “regular” readers of the news. These readers, through experience, have the skill and familiarity with news formulae to decode the intended meaning of an article through its innocent packaging, such as the use of scare quotes or the straight-news treatment of a ridiculous statement by a public official. As with May’s invited inferences, what the ironic journalistic text “means” is not what it explicitly “says” (Glasser & Ettema, 1993, p. 325), and yet somewhere there must be a meaning for those with the proper background.


Last, there is perhaps the quintessential news question: How good is the evidence?

Journalists who offer descriptive arguments about the world demonstrate their claims primarily with evidence. The evidence can be from eyewitnesses, interviews, anecdotes, statistics, or anything else. It is likely the most important ingredient in a journalist’s work. But, as discussed, this evidence can be fallacious, irrelevant, or insufficient.

Accordingly, from the critical thinking domain, Johnson (1988) reminded readers that most reporting on polls lack the information required to fully accept or reject the polls’ findings (see also Browne & Keeley, 2004, p. 155). Kahane (1980), in one of the field’s early textbooks, dedicated an entire chapter to evaluating the news, including evaluating its use of evidence (p. 222).

From journalism, Rupar (2006), in a study of New Zealand newspaper stories on genetically modified food, found that nearly two-thirds did not give contextual information about how at least some information was obtained. For example, attitudes of actors were paraphrased without giving data about how the information was known; quotes were included without noting how the quote was obtained (interview, press release, etc.) (pp. 131–132). Interestingly, Rupar also provided re-written sample paragraphs to show what little editing would have been required to contextualize information in stories (p. 133).

Media criticism online has been fairly strong in critiques of evidence. Jack Shafer, formerly of Slate, maintained a “bogus trend story” series, which targets stories claiming that, for example, child pornography is increasing but lacking sufficient data to show it (Shafer, 2010; see also Tenore, 2010).[15] Bloggers at both mainstream and personal websites have also long critiqued mainstream journalism on evidentiary grounds (for example, Weigel (2011) and Balcerak (2011)).

Fields that are often the subject of reporting have also provided evidence-based critiques of journalistic content. Pellechia (1997) found that The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post generally omitted methodological details of scientific studies in reporting on them between 1966 and 1990.

The attention online given to evidence is not coincidental: pushing journalists to post or link to the source material on which their stories are based has been a consistent part of arguments about how journalistic ethics and transparency must change on the web (Singer, 2010, p. 122; Craft and Heim, 2008). Additionally, some newspapers in the last decade have experimented with citing evidence in articles via footnotes. The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for a 24,000-word series accompanied by 7,000 words of footnotes with sources for quotations, facts, and scenes in the stories (Scanlan, 2003). The series’ editor, Rick Meyer, told a reporter that the footnotes “ha[d] everything to do with winning the confidence of those that read your newspaper” (Wemple, n.d.).

  1. In fairness, Christians, Ferre, and Fackler’s rejection of Enlightenment individualism might also cause them to reject a core assumption of this paper: that individuals, using tools of argumentation and critical thinking, should approach the evidence and reasoning of works of journalism as an “individual.”  ↩

  2. Just as this thesis wonders whether it’s reasonable for citizens interested in learning about their communities to abandon journalism, it’s fair to note that it might be equally reasonable for journalists to abandon their monitorial aspirations after reviewing whether democratic citizens do with journalism what journalists hope is done. How might a journalist justifiably react to, for example, the surveys by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (2002) suggesting citizens might be more satisfied under something like a reasonable, competent dictator than in a democracy?  ↩

  3. The following page numbers will refer to Toulmin (1958) until stated otherwise.  ↩

  4. However, Hitchcock (1996) claimed, without elaborating, that the “field-dependency thesis” has faced “repeated decisive refutation” (p. 275). Also, see Bermejo-Luque (2004) for an appraisal and response to the claim that Toulmin’s idea of field-dependent standards of argument leads to relativism.  ↩

  5. Burleson (1979) later charged Willard with presenting a critique applicable to only arguments (2), not arguments (1). Willard might have more of a point against, for example, Canary and Sillars (1992), who attempted to stuff arguments “about” things by married couples into coding sheets and diagrams.  ↩

  6. Fallacies have, of course, been studied for millennia. The more recent investigations of them by informal logicians, though, were prompted by the attack on the ancient “standard treatment” of fallacies prompted by Hamblin (1970). Hamblin “issued a challenge to logicians to rebuild the theory of fallacy, which was taken up by Woods and Walton” (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 180).  ↩

  7. The camel’s back fallacy is an “illicit move … to or from the whole and one of its parts. … In the [fabel of the straw that broke the camel’s back] it was the last straw added to the load blamed rather than the whole load itself.” The flunking student’s fallacy is a “species” of the camel’s back fallacy involving a student asking for a single “good” grade to prevent an overall failing grade. The salesman’s fallacy, a fallacy of composition, is born out of a salesperson’s attempt to showcase the low cost of individual parts of a large purchase rather than the budget-busting total (p. 12).  ↩

  8. Again, not a novel claim by any stretch (Hamblin, 1970, p. 136).  ↩

  9. For brevity, this section uses “informal logic” to refer to both it and critical thinking except where specified.  ↩

  10. A second clarification sometimes found in works on argumentation is whether the essay intends to study arguments as they are “given” or as they are received and analyzed by audiences (for example, Chittleborough and Newman, 1993, p. 190). The second sense motivates experiments examining, for example, the degree of persuasion brought on by different types of evidence (Hornikx, 2008). This thesis is concerned with the former half of the distinction — how journalism is presented, not how journalism is received.  ↩

  11. The use of “news” is intentional. Discussions of informal logic or argumentation commonly suggest that the fields be tested on newspaper editorials (for example, Scriven, 1976, p. 167; Rothbart, 1983, p. 16; Jason, 1987, p. 22;). That’s fine, but it should be made clear that this study focused on non-opinion-section news content.  ↩

  12. Somewhat ironically for the purposes of this study, Hardwig concludes that if one accept his views about the need to accept expert claims based on trust, then one must also question more cherished beliefs, including belief in democracy, because of their reliance on individualistic and atomistic assumptions about knowledge.  ↩

    Of related interest to Hardwig’s conclusion is the seminal work by Rosenfield (1949), who described several instances of progressive change taken for granted today — for example, public schools and zoning regulations — but opposed at the time by groups of “expert” professionals. These changes were inspired and carried out always by people outside of the field.

  13. Ennis (1982) clarifies three kinds of “assumptions,” as the term is often used, that do not describe the kind of assumptions under consideration in this thesis. Those are “conclusions being called an assumption” (“My assumption is that you are going out, since you are wearing your cap”); “less-than-fully-established proposition[s]” (“That’s only an assumption. You don’t know that”); and “adoption” (“His assumption of an air of humility”) (pp. 61–62).  ↩

  14. As it happened, a review of Manufacturing Consent appeared in the same issue of Informal Logic as McMurtry’s essay.  ↩

  15. Interestingly, some of Shafer’s (2010) critiques involve the transition from claim-in-headline to claim-in-actual-story, which was a complaint of Marlin (1984).  ↩


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