Philosophy of Journalism

November 24, 2009

Maybe I’ll tip this one off to Yulsman, Kloor, and Fleck (all readers of this blog), as well as any other journalists out there, but there’s a somewhat interesting discussion going on about the philosophy of journalism on Leiter’s blog. Carlin Romano laments in the Chronicle of Higher Education that there is no philosophy of journalism. As we’ve seen in the past, Brian Leiter no likey Carlin Romano. The daggers are out for him on this one too.

I’m surprised that Leiter didn’t point this out, but there’s definitely a discussion about journalism ethics, though that discussion tends to be sequestered primarily to journalism schools and shocked audience reactions after films like Shattered Glass. (Peter Sarsgaard is amazing, btw. Darth Vader leaves a bit to be desired, though he’s better there than with Jar Jar.) It’s an understandable oversight. Journalism ethics deals with a different set of questions than philosophical ethics, and even applied ethics as conducted by philosophers. I don’t see any reason why philosophers can’t, in principle, contribute to that discussion. Maybe the journalistically inclined readers have something to add.


  1. Ben,
    It should amuse you to learn that way back yonder (with a full head of curly hair, I might add) I was a declared philosophy major as a Freshman. Ate the stuff up, from eastern phil to metaphysics. Then I hooked up with the college paper and it was curtains. It didn’t help that my family was browbeating me to no end: “So you’re going to be a thinker? How does that pay?”

    Anyway, long story short, I’ve retained my egg-headedness to some stunted degree, so I’ll take a look at this. BTW, among the best primers on journalism ethics, IMHO, remains Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and Murderer.” Ass-kicking opening line and paragraph, too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Journalist_and_the_Murderer

  2. Damn you Ben, you think I don’t have enough work to do one day from Thanksgiving? Now I have to read this AND deal with fear that my online climate change course has become instantly obsolete with the email imbroglio. (Don’t you just love that word? I love the way it feels to say it.)

    I’m tempted to bow to Kloor’s philosophical expertise here. But he’s still an electron-stained wretch. So I’ll weigh in tomorrow.

  3. Alright, I couldn’t resist…

    For me, the damning language in Leiter’s post comes at the end:

    “As to why ‘philosophy of journalism’ is not a major topic of philosophical study, I would have thought the answer obvious: it’s not a central or substantial intellectual or cultural practice, unlike science, art, or law. The idea that ‘philosophy of journalism’ would displace the central subjects of the discipline for millenia–metaphysics, epistemology, value theory (the ones too ‘abtruse’ for Mr. Romano to understand)–is sufficiently silly that only a journalist could propose it.”

    Well then, journalism is not a central or substantial cultural practice?

    Say WHAT?

    Is he suggesting that journalism really is NOT one of the main conduits by which modern society learns about its current affairs? Is he really suggesting that journalism is NOT a way that culture is constructed? Does he really believe that the vast majority of people in the world do NOT learn about everything from the failure of their local schools to educate their children to the failure of central governments to take adequate steps to prevent a new financial bubble? (Not to mention such essential pieces of information as precisely which drug killed Jacko, and just how mind-blowing Britney’s new CD is, as I learned on NPR the other day. No kidding.)

    Journalism really is NOT a substantial cultural practice?

    Until he made this patently absurd and self-refuting comment, I was kind of hanging in there with him. But then it seemed clear that maybe Mr. Romano was on to something.

    Concerning Leiter’s other point, I can’t imagine that a philosophy of journalism would ever “displace” metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory, just as environmental philosophy has done no such thing.

    Moreover, we already have journalism ethics, a form of third-order philosophy. And that certainly has not upset Mr. Leiter’s apple cart (even though it apparently has greatly upset him). Moving beyond ethics and applying philosophy in other ways to journalism sounds very interesting and potentially valuable to me. If such a field existed, I would explore it. (Just as I have explored the philosophy of science because I felt it would help me become a better science journalist.)

    But don’t get me wrong. I’m not pining for Mr. Leiter to explore the philosophy of journalism. Please, please, don’t do us any favors Mr. Leiter. STAY AWAY!

    (But Ben, you’re a different story…)

  4. Oh, and one more thing: I find it quite revealing that Mr. Leiter’s “blog” has no provision for comments.

  5. Prof. Leiter (Law, University of Chicago) enables comments when he wants to initiate a discussion. Otherwise, he just points people in the direction of interesting news relevant to philosophers. It’s a pretty influential blog in the small circle of philosophers.

    I guess I don’t completely disagree with Leiter that journalism is not a substantial cultural practice. He’s not saying that it’s an unimportant practice, or that it’s not a cultural phenomenon. He’s saying that, so far as philosophy is concerned, it’s not one that depends on unique first principles. Most of the philosophical questions in journalism can be addressed without deference to journalism, questions about truth and rightness, for instance.

    At the same time, there are a variety of other philosophical niches that do address presuppositions internal to a given discipline, just as environmental philosophy looks not directly at the first principles of the environment, but also at the presuppositions of environmental matters.

    There’s a lot of circling of wagons in academic philosophy, for reasons that partly escape me. I personally think it’s destructive of good scholarship, but one reason may be that many non-philosophers think that they can just say philosophical things, and that this somehow counts as doing philosophy. So there are some who want to claim that they’re doing philosophy, when what they’re really doing is bullshitting. This doesn’t happen in most other disciplines. People don’t call themselves journalists unless they’re actually doing some form of journalism. People don’t call themselves climatologists unless they’re actually doing work in that area. Yet, all sorts of people call themselves philosophers. Just hang out at Trident or Laughing Goat for a few hours and I’m sure you’ll encounter the type.

    At any rate, there are lot of really interesting ethical questions in journalism, and I think questions that aren’t answerable simply by journalists effectively making it up or basing it off of experience, so I suspect there’s at least a role for the philosopher there. On the other hand, questions about the conception of what the modus operandi of journalism is are, in a way, better suited for scholars in journalism schools. I’m not sure that traditional philosophical analysis will add much more to this… though I could be wrong. Obviously something to talk about over beer (as always).

  6. The Missouri School of Journalism has taught a course called the “Philosophy of Journalism” for three decades.

    The course was initiated by the brilliant scholar, Dr. John Merrill, who has written some two dozen books, perhaps his most famous, “Existential Journalism.”

    I taught the graduate seminar for at least a decade. The students loved it and certainly saw its relevance.

  7. Ben: Perhaps philosophers have their own jargon and the word “substantial” means something more specific than the dictionary definition, and maybe you have the ability to read Leiter’s mind so you could determine what he really meant.

    But Leiter WROTE what he said — he wasn’t speaking off the top of his head. It wasn’t just a flip comment. So I think it is fair to evaluate the meaning and significance of the actual words he used, not maybe possibly what he might have meant.

    And what he actually said, in so many words was that journalism is not of considerable importance to culture. Especially given the context of his comments, my sense is that he is a guy who despises the rough and tumble of public affairs and thinks that journalists are mostly all buffoons of no particular import. (Don’t get me wrong — some of us are buffoons!)

    As for your argument (not his, because he didn’t make it), yes, I totally understand your point about first principles. But why is philosophy applicable to environmental issues but not journalism?

    Now I will go away think about this. (Everyone run for cover!)

    At the Trident Cafe…

  8. Well, maybe I should put it this way: the philosophy of language, for instance, covers a range of questions associated with meaning, sense, and reference, semantics and pragmatics, and a lot of other stuff too. Language is a substantial cultural practice. Journalism may fall partly under that.

    Epistemology, which is the philosophy of knowledge, basically, covers questions about truth, knowledge, belief, and justification, among other things. Knowledge is a similarly substantial question in philosophy. Some of these questions bear on journalism.

    So too for ethics. There may be nothing particularly unique about the predicament of the journalist that requires philosophers to participate in the discussion.

    Having said that, I self-identify as an environmental philosopher, where I could just identify as a philosopher. What I (and others) have tried to do is make room in the philosophical community for a specific subset of questions that, I think, raise unique challenges to some accepted positions in philosophy.

  9. Ben –

    As someone who did his undergraduate education in philosophy before turning to journalism because hanging out at city council meetings seemed fun (Ah, the pageant of democracy!), I feel uniquely qualified to be confused by this discussion.

    Romano’s notion that journalists might have any particular view of philosophers, positive or negative, is alien to my experience. It suggests a thoughtful divide between the two disciplines that, based on those around me every day, simply does not exist. Most journalists of my acquaintance would be hard pressed to spell “epistemology,” let alone have some understanding of the implications its formalisms might have to the task at hand.

    In other words, these sorts of questions just aren’t on the radar of the day-to-day practice of the craft. I find this unfortunate, but it is not from a lack of academic emphasis on some specified “philosophy of journalism”.

    And yet, lacking the formal frameworks, working journalists learn a great deal more about these issues than most folks, in an intuitive rather than structured way, by having to listen to, entertain and then explain the ideas of people who disagree. Think of it as practical epistemology.

    Having never taken any journalism classes (sorry, Tom), I’m not exactly sure what one might learn from such a course of study. Perhaps because of my own career path, I’ve long argued that an education in philosophy is, in fact, an ideal introduction to the journalistic task – Ben’s list of language, epistemology and ethics seems like a fabulous foundation. The rest is just craft: ask people stuff, listen well, ask some more questions, write it down. It ain’t rocket surgery.

  10. I definitely can see where studying philosophy at an undergraduate, or even a graduate, level would prepare one to be a top-rate journalist. I’m an apologist for philosophy, to be sure, but I think the skills required of (what I think make for good) journalists, as you note, are similar to those required of a philosopher.

  11. Ben, I don’t know who this ‘yulsman’ is (maybe you do), but he’s a good argument for moderating comments. You make some of the right points in reply. And perhaps ‘yulsman’ should read Mr. Romano’s piece, which drew the contrast between philosophy of journalism and all the ‘abstract’ stuff which is “only of interest to tenuerd professors” (I’m paraphrasing from memory). Someone who thinks that ‘journalism’ is a philosophically substantial cultural practice on a par with law or science ought to specify the set of philosophical questions and show how they compare to the kinds of philosophical questions asked about science and law over the last century. As far as I can see, there are a handful of questions about journalistic ethics to be asked, and journalism ought also to come up wiht respect to parts of social epistemology. A Gramsci-style critique of the culture of capitalism would also attend to journalism. But this doesn’t add up to a course on philosophy of journalism with which one’s education would be incomplete, as anyone who knew anything about, e.g., philosophy of science or philosophy of law or philosophy of art would recognize.

  12. This is old…but somehow google turned it up in search results, via another blog… So I felt I would share.

    Anywho, I am not sure this journalist would view philosophers as bad…Philosophy was by far my favorite subject, though I ended up majoring in Political Science (mostly political theory)/Journalism as I thought it would be more practical, I still read philosophy widely.

    In a different time period, I would love to be a philosopher, but the modern academy I am not fond of. I am a vagabond philosopher at heart, hence why journalism was so attractive to me. Being in one place for too long bothers me, so does the bureaucracy of academia. I certainly see myself as a hobbyist philosopher, with slightly higher than pedestrian knowledge of the field…

    I am not sure why journalists (good ones) and philosophers could not get along, they are often after some of the same things. Now philosophers and Law, which Leiter sometimes recommend, yet is also critical of not being so intellectual, seems like an even worse fit. As the modern practice of law seems to be more interested in circumventing the law, and not after knowledge.

    I studied at his yin/yang counterpart however, Northwestern, so I am sure they have a bit different view of journalism and journalist, coming from Medill.

  13. I believe that the reasoning of journalism or the school of such thoughts enable a freer society to eventually prevail.

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