The Chronicle Review

We Need 'Philosophy of Journalism'

Bettmann, Corbis

Reporters in the New York Post city room in 1963
November 15, 2009

If you examine philosophy-department offerings around America, you'll find staple courses in "Philosophy of Law," "Philosophy of Art," "Philosophy of Science," "Philosophy of Religion," and a fair number of other areas that make up our world.

It makes sense. Philosophy, as the intellectual enterprise that in its noblest form inspects all areas of life and questions each practice's fundamental concepts and presumptions, should regularly look at all human activities broad and persistent enough not to be aberrations or idiosyncrasies. (The latter can be reserved for Independent Studies.)

Why, then, don't you find "Philosophy of Journalism" among those staple courses? Why does philosophy, the academic discipline charged to reflect the noblest intellectual enterprise, avoid the subject while departments teem with abstruse courses mainly of interest to the tenured professors who teach them?

A few related questions come to mind. Why, at a time of breakneck technological and social revolution in news and newsrooms, do deans and presidents permit ossified philosophy departments to abdicate their responsibility to cover the world by not thinking about the media? How can it be that journalism and philosophy, the two humanistic intellectual activities that most boldly (and some think obnoxiously) vaunt their primary devotion to truth, are barely on speaking terms?

The explanations require a sociology of both professional philosophy and journalism, too large a project for this space, but worth thumbnailing anyway.

Unlike politics or art, journalism, as a sophisticated public practice in the West involving more than routine sharing of information, developed mainly in the 18th century, long after the core concerns of philosophy as a taught subject (chiefly cosmological, theological, and epistemological) shaped the curriculum. Unlike science, journalism long carried (and still does for many) the association of superficial intellectual goods. That made linkage with it unappealing to professional philosophers, whose egos and identities are deeply connected to an image of themselves as intellectually superior to other professionals. (Scientists and mathematicians, of course, tend to both scare and attract them.)

Add to this the historic insularity and inflexibility of philosophy—the field remains less diverse and intellectually adventurous than any of the other humanities—and the recipe for philosophical ignoring of journalism and new media was practically complete.

Other factors—highly human ones—also kick in, reflecting mainstream American values. A vast and mutual reservoir of condescension exists between American journalists and philosophers. Many philosophers think of journalists as B or even C students (we're talking pre-grade-inflation here), people who have committed themselves to simplistic narratives of the world shorn of nuance and qualification, fond of every fallacy in the book, all made worse by the pompous, officious, in-your-face personality associated with reporters in the popular imagination (see, most recently, Russell Crowe in State of Play, or Robert Downey Jr. in The Soloist.)

Journalists, in turn, often regard philosophy professors (though not all humanists) as mannered figures, badly informed and out of touch on matters outside their academic competence, insufficiently quick-witted on their feet, irrelevant in their influence on the public, and ludicrously inefficient in their Anglophilic and pedantic diction ("I should now like to make the claim, ceteris paribus …"). This makes philosophers, among other things, impossible guests on talk shows and hopeless sources for quotation. Factor in the root disposition that renders each group what it is—the inclination of philosophers to focus in any situation on the operative ideas and concepts involved, and the imperative of journalists to cling close to concrete facts—and the perfect storm of antipathy between these populations can feel fairly primal.

As someone who has tried to live a life in both fields for 30 years, I find journalists understand this state of affairs better than philosophy professors do. The former note the scorn directed at them by the latter and largely laugh it off. The latter often falsely think they are held in higher regard by fellow professionals than is the case.

Both groups, I think, twist the screws into each other too reflexively. For every philosophy professor with an impressive, tactile understanding of current events and human affairs, there's a journalist whose reading in the great books forms a wise philosophical understanding of the world that surpasses that of most philosophy professors. With intellectuals, it's all case by case.

Still, broadly speaking, we need philosophers who understand how epistemology and the establishment of truth claims function in the real world outside seminars and journals—the role of recognized authorities, of decision, of conscious intersubjective setting of standards. And we need journalists who scrutinize and question not just government officials, PR releases, and leaked documents, but their own preconceptions about every aspect of their business. We need journalists who think about how many examples are required to assert a generalization, what the role of the press ought to be in the state, how the boundaries of words are fixed or indeterminate in Wittgensteinian ways, and how their daily practice does or does not resemble art or science.

When I began teaching my seminar "Philosophical Problems of Journalism" at Yale more than 25 years ago—I've taught it nearly 20 times since at institutions ranging from St. Petersburg State, in Russia, to the University of Pennsylvania—it expressed my own bent as a fanatical reader of newspapers and magazines with (I believed) a fact-based approach to life that naturally steered me to philosophy. It was precisely all that raw journalistic information, often contradictory, that I thought stirred me to reason in a philosophical way, asking further questions, noting counterexamples, seeing the implications of the uncertainty of one concept for the uncertainty of others.

So I constructed a basic course that examines journalism in the light of philosophical thinking in epistemology, political theory, ethics, and aesthetics, mixing philosophical and journalistic materials and vocabularies. In Part 1, we scrutinize "truth," "objectivity," and "fact." In Part 2, we explore how journalism might fit classic modern theories of the state, including that tradition from Locke to Rawls that largely ignores the "Fourth Estate." In Part 3, we ponder how what practitioners call "journalistic ethics" fits with broader moral theories such as utilitarianism. In Part 4, we investigate whether journalism can be art or science without overstepping its conceptual bounds. The guiding principle was a variant of Browning: One's reach should exceed one's grasp, or what's a syllabus for?

Having now seen students in those seminars become journalists or philosophy professors themselves, I feel one of my core beliefs has panned out. I've always insisted to the philosophy students that journalistic thinking enhances philosophical work by connecting it to a less artificial method of establishing truth claims than exists in philosophical literature. I've always stressed to journalism students that a philosophical angle of mind—strictness in relating evidence and argument to claims, respectful skepticism toward tradition and belief, sensitivity to tautology, synoptic judgment—makes one a better reporter. Judging by reports from the field, it appears to be true.

For myself, teaching the seminar never gets stale, because journalism and philosophy never get stale. The news remains new. Tough philosophical problems never go away, and must be confronted again and again. At one time, I imagined "Philosophy of Journalism" would flourish through natural causation, despite my own inability, as full-time literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years, to act as an academic Johnny Appleseed, planting the course like a senior professor through disciples and former doctoral students. It hasn't happened.

Might it still? I hope so. Some friends tell me the need is obviated by the huge growth in American academe of communications and media studies as a separate discipline, and the boom in journalism schools and programs. I disagree. Without doubt, as the annual meeting of the International Communication Association confirms, that field more than compensates in sheer volume for the lack of attention philosophy gives to journalism, new media, and implications of the Internet. Certainly it has produced thinkers, such as Manuel Castells, whose syncretic aspirations mirror those of philosophers. Yet, for the most part—a spirited subsociety of wonderful philosophy types notwithstanding—the attention remains chiefly empirical and "social sciencey" in style, too often belaboring and endlessly footnoting the obvious rather than challenging conventional wisdom.

We still need our colleges and universities to provide a more classical, full-bloodedly philosophical approach to journalism. If that's to happen, the welcome move by august universities and media-minded foundations to rethink and reshape journalism education must resist its own faddishness and lack of vision. Too many foundations and universities breathlessly fasten on the bells and whistles of new technology, as if tweets shall save us all, rather than attending to longstanding gaps in journalism education.

Every journalism student should be required to take a course in journalism history. It's essential for young journalists to understand how our peculiar institution developed, and that it is not a natural kind—it can be changed and reformed. Every journalism student should also be required to take a course in "Comparative Journalism," a flagrant lacuna in the field, to understand that the American model and its issues, which predominate in all American journalism programs, is not the world.

Most important, every journalism student should be required to take a course in "Philosophy of Journalism," to develop the intellectual instincts and reflexes that will make the approach to truth of both practices a permanent part of his or her intellectual makeup. Imagine a world in which every column about the Obama administration's battle with Fox News came with profound context about the large issues involved. A sweet, rather than tweet, thought.

There's a great history to be written of philosophers' engagement with journalism, from Hegel's citation of the daily newspaper as his morning prayer, to Ortega y Gasset's lessons from newspaper life, to Russell's widespread freelancing and the later Wittgenstein's instantiation of conceptual journalism as a philosophical method.

Universities and foundations could do their part to mine this rich tradition. Before directing more Knight and other grants to further repetitive Twitter and Internet "experiments," they should support a core intellectual curriculum in journalism studies that would make a far greater difference to future excellence in the field.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.