Treshaun Rogers

Semi-personal, wholly bookish musings of yours truly

We Need a Philosophy of Journalism in The U.S.

Journalism is predicated on creating and delivering reports of facts, people, events, and ideas currently relevant to the times—in other words, news. This seems to be an uncontroversial understanding of journalism. Despite this, this ad hoc definition doesn’t answer questions like:

  • What is the telos/end/goal of journalism?
  • What can journalism achieve; what are its limitations?
  • Is there “good” journalism or journalism done “right”? Is there “bad” or pseudo-journalism?
  • What are the methods and processes of “doing” journalism, and how do we know those methods/processes are sufficient?

I believe this is due, to some extent, to the lack of a bona fide philosophy of journalism.

The “philosophy of φ,” where φ stands in for any given discipline, generally covers all the important questions such as the aims, boundaries, and methods of φ. In the case of professions like law, medicine, or education, philosophies of these kinds are applied philosophy. Applied philosophy is focused on giving coherent ideas and beliefs that apply to everyone within the profession to guide actions. It enables people inside and outside the profession to make claims like, “This person isn’t a good doctor.”

In the case of a possible philosophy of journalism, having a well-thought philosophy of journalism enables everyone to know what is or isn’t journalism, what the purpose of journalism is, what journalism can or can’t do, and the acceptable journalism methods. At the moment, no one can definitively say “X or Y media outlet is a good/bad news outlet” without presuming some set of beliefs that justify that claim.

In simpler terms—without a philosophy of journalism, any claims about the merits of a journalist or journalistic organization are true only to the person making that claim. The merits of the New York Times vs. any conspiratorial outlet are equal without an established benchmark.

I’ve been reading the book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, by Jonathan Rauch. It’s a real cool read if you’re interested in philosophy and journalism, but one chapter that seems to be relevant to this topic was “Troll Epistemology: ‘Flood the Zone with Shit.’” Rauch wrote that trolling degrades the inquiry environments; in other words, we lose the ability to discern truthful information from false information, the ability to have truth-seeking discussions wanes, and I argue that anti-intellectualism becomes more popular. I believe the existence of trolls in real life and online gives some justification for why working journalists should make a concrete set of ideas.

What are “Trolls,” and How are They Related to the Philosophy of Journalism?

In the context of the chapter, trolls are described as epistemic sociopaths—people who, for one reason or another, intentionally spread misinformation, often with the intent to rouse conflict and doubt. Milo Yiannopoulos, Andrew Anglin, Donald Trump, and “Ironghazi” were cited as examples of trolls. In its most innocent form, trolling is those outlandish comments that are obviously false or meaningless but nevertheless distracting. At its worst, it floods and degrades a space with so much crap that it becomes a digital quagmire.

Rauch wrote that many trolls are associated with the alt-right. (Cancel culture is taken to be its left-leaning counterpart in terms of degrading information environments.) I find this interesting because, in my news literacy course in college, much of the conspiracy theories we looked over predominantly came from right-leaning sources. Rauch claims that “[c]onservative activists had been using and refining the art of trolling since at least the 1980s,” but that doesn’t explain why conservative news outlets have a penchant for spreading/endorsing conspiracy theories.

One theory I thought of was that conservative news outlets are more likely to endorse this kind of disinformation for profit since attention is a commodity, and disinformation from trolls captures attention. “People like Alex Jones, who were nonentities in the reality-based world, discovered they could build commercial empires as conspiracy theorists.” Stefanie MacWilliams, a contributor to Planet Free Will who propagated the Pizzagate theory that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child prostitution ring beneath a Washington, D.C. eatery, said to the Toronto Star, “I really have no regrets and it’s honestly really grown our audience.” Rauch near the end of the chapter pointed out that disinformation is not solely produced by media outlets; media consumers can produce their own disinformation while media outlets merely endorse and propagate it. Moreover, conspiracy theories are not exclusive to conservative news outlets, either.

Because of this, this isn’t a condemnation of conservative news outlets as it is a condemnation of prioritizing profit over epistemic virtues (discernment, honesty, objectivity, wisdom, etc.)—something which liberal news outlets are also guilty of. If we think it is inappropriate for news outlets to intentionally spread misinformation—and we should, since disinformation and “news” i.e. facts are taken to be contraries—then the beliefs and arguments that enable news outlets to do that kind of thing should be discarded. In a world where news outlets are permitted to intentionally spread false information, regardless of the ultimate goals of journalism as a profession, people would be worse off. In fact, yellow journalism is a real, historical example of vicious news outlets sacrificing the truth for profit. It’s easy to see that this is a form of “bad’ journalism from a consequentialist perspective, although I think the virtue ethicist perspective is more intuitive.

Why? Virtue ethics is most famously associated with Aristotle in Western philosophy. “Virtue,” arete in Greek, is in the most basic sense “excellence.” A good musician can play music well, a good doctor is, among other things, able to practice medicine well, etc. The root word of arete is the same as aristosaristocracy, aristocratic—so it may be helpful to think of virtues as marks of superiority. In this perspective, “bad” journalism is bad because it has the vices/inferior qualities that inhibit the ideal functioning of journalism. In simpler terms: bad journalism fails at doing what journalism is supposed to do. If anyone has seen negative comments on various mainstream outlets’ social media pages, generally the issue is about how these outlets are dysfunctional.

It seems innocuous to claim that the ideal journalist should at least be honest and attentive, and we can infer the ideal journalist is obligated not to lie and must show due diligence to the evidence. That appears to be possible only in a good inquiry environment.

What are Inquiry Environments: Trolls and Bullshit

The explanation of inquiry environments comes from the philosopher Susan Haack in her essay, Preposterism and Its Consequences. “Inquiry aims at the truth,” which is to say that inquiring is the same as trying to find out the truth of something. “Genuine inquiry seeks the truth with respect to some question or topic,” and here she claims there are two kinds of pseudo-inquirers: sham reasoners and fake reasoners.

Sham reasoners are those who make the case for some unshakeable preconceived belief. A contemporary example of a sham reasoner would be going on r/changemymind, the subreddit dedicated to users posting their opinions to spark conversation, and a Reddit user posting an opinion they refuse to believe is potentially wrong/inaccurate. Their inquiry is a sham because they’re too focused on confirming their own beliefs rather than knowing the actual merits of their belief. To this effect is confirmation bias the hallmark of sham reasoning.

Fake reasoners are those who are indifferent to the truth of what they’re arguing. William “Bill” Vallicella wrote in his blog, “[t]he sham reasoner is committed to the truth of the thesis he urges; the fake reasoner isn’t: he is a bullshitter in Harry Frankfurt’s sense.

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.

Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

The dinner scene in American Psycho (2000) where Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman argues for various progressive ideals despite not being concerned with the truth of what he’s saying is a good example of a fake reasoner. Trolls are similar to fake reasoners in that whatever a troll says or argues is disconnected from what they actually believe, but a troll’s goal is to incite doubt and conflict whereas the generic fake reasoner is concerned with their reputation.

This isn’t to say that sham and fake reasoners never tell the truth, but rather that they will carefully select evidence for some desired outcome. For more information on this kind of reasoning and misperceptions in the context of politics, read the essay The Nature and Origins of Misperceptions: Understanding False and Unsupported Beliefs about Politics.

Haack is aware people don’t neatly fit within genuine, sham, and fake categories. So, she argues the environment where inquiry takes place is relevant.

A good environment will encourage genuine inquiry and discourage the sham and fake; and the worst damage of sham and fake inquiry will be mitigated, and the contributions to knowledge that sham and fake reasoners sometimes make despite their dubious motivation will get sifted from the doss…a bad environment will encourage sham and fake inquiry, and/or impede mutual scrutiny.

Susan Haack, Preposterism and Its Consequences

Haack claims the four chief obstacles to inquiry are submission to faulty and unworthy authority, the influence of custom [as I understand it, social norms and customs], popular prejudice, and concealing our ignorance with grand displays of knowledge. In any way of understanding this, bad inquiry environments enable sham and fake reasoners, obscure genuine experts, discourage epistemic virtues like honesty or inquisitiveness and encourage epistemic vices like dishonesty and inattentiveness. If journalists are expected to fact-check, fact-checking becomes difficult when the environment obscures evidence and treats experts and non-experts as equal.

Bad inquiry environments are also reflective of anti-intellectualism, which itself treats journalists as enemies rather than advocates of information. To read more about anti-intellectualism within the United States, read Understanding Anti-Intellectualism in the U.S. Rauch used this idea to suggest the current media landscape is epistemically inhospitable.

Pew Research Center researchers discuss how Americans trust the news media and assess news and information, including the role of partisanship, misinformation and representation.

To some extent, I believe journalists and mainstream news outlets bear some responsibility for degrading the media landscape, be it by activating endorsing misperceptions or neglecting to correct said misperceptions. If the goal of journalism is, among other things, keeping the public well-informed about φ, the public is warranted to believe whatever journalists reports about φ to be true/accurate. If journalists are expected to be honest, they’re forbidden to report against their beliefs. If journalists are expected to be attentive to key details (i.e., be accurate, fact-check, etc.), they ought to show due care or attention to the evidence. Together, honest and attentive journalism is against reporting misinformation, and yet mainstream news outlets are perceived as not honest and/or not attentive. Without a bona fide philosophy of journalism, no one can say this is an unintended or inappropriate circumstance we find ourselves in.

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