• November 23, 2014

We Need 'Philosophy of Journalism'

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Reporters in the New York Post city room in 1963

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Reporters in the New York Post city room in 1963

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.

Comments

1. 22057479 - November 16, 2009 at 08:03 am

Professor Romano, I have been incorporating the philosophical considerations you outline here into my journalism courses for 20 years. Your suggestion to systematically do so is a breath of fresh air. Could you possibly send me your syllabus and reading list! Many thanks!
Grover Furr
Montclair State University
furrg@mail.montclair.edu

2. snwiedmann - November 16, 2009 at 08:14 am

I suspect many professors of philosophy, myself included, would welcome an invitation to teach such professional philosophy courses if only we were asked. Too often we see non-philosophers teaching such courses and doing it badly. Just because a person has a Ph.D. in one field -- journalism, for example -- does not necessarily mean that person is competent to teach philosophy -- not even philosophy of journalism. Philosophical theories ought to be understood well before being applied. A poorly understood theory poorly applied can lead to great errors and confusion. Further, philosophical theories do not develop in vacumns. They are each part of a very long conversation. If you don't understand the context and background, again, you are apt not to understand the theory as well as you should -- especially if you are going to try and teach it.

3. lga1725 - November 16, 2009 at 09:54 am

When I taught journalism at Eugene Lang College at the New School in New York a couple of years ago I also incorporated Hume, Mill, Bernard Williams, Habermas and others. As snwiedmann points out, I often felt concerned about my lack of formal training. I think philosophy professors and journalism professors could teach seminars in tandem to solve the problem. My students were hungry for the study of philosophy and journalism. I believe that not only is there a great gap in most journalism training in this area, but that the current debate about the so-called Crisis in Journalism in the U.S., (though not in Europe), has lacked a crucial understanding of Hume and Mill, statistical aspects of public opinion, and other subjects more pertinent than the constant lamentations about the decline of reading and advertising revenue.

4. meyer1073 - November 16, 2009 at 11:24 am

Doug Kellner has been teaching media philosophy for decades.

5. dr_carpy - November 16, 2009 at 04:57 pm

While "we need a philosophy of x" almost always works, I don't find the argument that we need a philosophy of journalism because we have a philosophy of science or philosophy of art very convincing. Nor does the whining tone here help much. I do wonder, though, about the contents of Mr. Romano's class. As someone with a PhD in philosophy and a current job as journalist, I would have loved to hear more about philosophy of journalism (and less about the evils of philo departments that don't offer such a course).

6. mikems - November 16, 2009 at 05:33 pm

I'd like to see philosophers participate in journalism ethics discussions. For many years, students benefited from John Merrill's course in Philosophy of Journalism at the University of Missouri. Merrill applied classic philosophy to journalistic problems. He has been a prolific author in that vein and in others. In large measure, the professional schools in our society, (journalism, enfineering, medicine, architecture) are deficient in ethical training. They do their best to meet accreditation standards, which leave little room for options.

7. shalomfreedman - November 17, 2009 at 02:09 am

This article is interesting and makes a great deal of sense. I would only add that it seems to me that 'philosophy' as the 'love of wisdom' should not be confined to traditional categories but should touch upon everything there is in the world. Perhaps Pragmatism America's only native philosophy comes close to this in its understanding the kinds of thought we have in everyday life as subject for philosophy.
It would seem to me in this sense the philosophical impulse, the impulse to 'think about and strive to understand' should touch upon every area of life and inquiry.

8. adamvs - November 17, 2009 at 08:27 am

I would like to see a course in statistics, to complement the conceptual, historical and geographic analysis you suggest.

9. paulos_temple_edu - November 17, 2009 at 09:49 am

Marginally relevant to the column and the above comment: A mathematician, I taught a course on quantitative literacy for journalists at Columbia several years ago. I thought I could introduce some novel approaches to topical issues, discuss various statistical ideas of relevance, and alert the (graduate) students to quantitative and, yes, philosophical issues lying just below the surface of many news stories. The students were bright, wrote well, but almost every mathematical puzzle, paradox, or parable seemed to baffle them and I was forced to spend considerable time reviewing basic notions. A numerically savvy government official or corporate spokesman wouldn't have found it difficult to spin most of them.

10. ramesh1 - November 17, 2009 at 10:49 am

Newspaper is business must accept business norms.How can we create philosophy of journalism in pure business world where man bite to dog is good news,If you want make your newspaper salable you must print want readers want.Before commercial age not arise at that time journalists were responsible for society and nation and obey some ethic.In today's commercial everything is permitted,when there is rat race in business how can you expect philosophy of journalism.? Today all newspaper are on deathbed, and they are struggling for survival how can they behave with true principal?

11. ccchron - November 17, 2009 at 11:44 am

"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."

Hell, I'd be happy with more journalists who actually fulfill the first part of this sentence.

12. apothegms - November 17, 2009 at 12:17 pm

My comments will be well aligned with the point of view of the article, merely more cynical. First, the basic antipathy between the two disciplines is the result of the truth of each one's stereotype of the other. Political and news reporting (as opposed to the intelligent criticism still found among some reviewers) is now so debased that a philosophical interest in it would be akin to a philosophical interest in daytime television. But the view that journalists have of philosophers is even more accurate. Early in the 20th century, philosophy consciously chose to make itself trivial and irrelevant. Philosophers themselves know this and often lament this, but have continued to make sure that nothing is done about it.

As for "journalistic ethics," this comes near to being an oxymoron, and I speak from experience. Most reporters I chatted with in my newspaper days honestly could not tell the difference between "morally right" and "legally right," which meant that they drew no distinction between what the public needs to know and what it wants to know.

Romano's course is a good one, because we need not resign ourselves to this miserable state of affairs, and there surely must be some serious philosophers and some serious journalists still out there--the philosophers trying to synthesize facts from all the disciplines into a large framework of objective truth and stable meaning, the journalists trying to speak truth to power instead of being merely the conduit whereby power speaks falsity without fear of contradiction.

13. sysdt - November 18, 2009 at 02:05 am

I couldn't agree more with the sentiments expressed in Carlin Romano's article. I have been teaching an Epistemology of Journalism course at the University of Lund's Helsingborg campus (Sweden), as part of an international summer school that is designed to attract students from countries traditionally without a free press. Here is a course outline: http://www.icomm.lu.se/summerschool/course1.html

14. justinjulesmartin - November 18, 2009 at 06:33 am

Wow. This is great to hear about. Thanks for the article!

15. philrels108 - November 18, 2009 at 10:06 am

Entries for a CHE lexicon?

ROMANO, verb. To criticize an academic discipline as if from within by making snide over-generalizations, baselessly questioning the good faith of the discipline's practitioners, etc.
E.g., "In saying '[philosophy] departments teem with abstruse courses mainly of interest to the tenured professors who teach them' and 'professional philosophers, whose egos and identities are deeply connectd to an image of themselves as intellectually superior to other professionals' Carlin really romanos philosophy."

ROMANO, noun. A large, cheese-like block of snark with which one romanos by grating and liberally sprinkling it throughout an essay.
E.g., "Why did Carlin go so heavy on the romano in that piece in the Chroncile? His point was an interesting one; surely he could have made it without all that romano."

16. mattmark - November 18, 2009 at 10:28 am

What a bizarre rant! Readers seduced by its title into thinking the author has something substantive to say about the interesting question it raises are instead treated to derisive dismissals of philosophy as a discipline and philosophy professors as professionals. The guise of attributing the list of negative adjectives to unspecified 'journalists' is transparent, and the list is lengthy enough, and carefully enough rehearsed, to suggest that years of venom and nursed grievances have contributed to its formation. Perhaps the author's forays into the realms of epistemology and ethics and his conception of what might constitute a 'philosophy of journalism' have not been taken seriously by philosophers, resulting in a bruised ego seeking retribution in this travesty of an article. Such speculation at least strays no further from 'concrete facts' than do the article's facile generalizations ("philosophical thinking;" "many philosophers think;" etc.) about the motivations and shortcomings of philosophy professors--almost any of whom would be capable of contributing more illuminating observations to the ostensible topic than the author.

The Chronicle Review might consider revisiting this topic by entrusting its exploration to someone with a better grasp of the sociology of knowledge (at least to the extent of distinguishing between it and personal venting as a warrant for generalization) and more respect for the basics of journalism. A very disappointing and self-inflating piece on a potentially interesting subject!

17. quidnunc - November 18, 2009 at 06:36 pm

I cover the same ground in my "Philosophy of Doggerel" course. If anybody, it's the media owners who might benefit from classes in epistemology and ethics -- if their brains could be replaced with organs that actually possess a conscience.

18. ethicalmartini - November 18, 2009 at 06:47 pm

Thanks Carlin, I've been working on this stuff for a while now, your column inspired me to write a fairly lengthy response which is on my blog:
http://ethicalmartini.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/philosophers-and-journalists-unlikely-bedfellows/

cheers
Martin

19. davidcayjohnston - November 19, 2009 at 06:26 pm

Carlin,

I wish I had written most of what you put here, and put very well. I hesitate only about the sneering at philosophy professors, which I think unnecessary to make your points.


What is distressing is that even among the erudite readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education many of the responses reveal all the depth and nuance of those thoughtless and angry people who hurl invective, hiding behind noms d'Internet, with no regard for fact and little regard for context.

Some who post here show what a poor job journalists have done of making the rest of the world understand our work. (And to be clear I am speaking of serious journalism of the kind you and I and thousands of others at much smaller papers spent their careers practicing with care and precision, not the tabloid variety of fluff that cable TV has made ubiquitous.)

A newsroom is NOT a place of business, but one with intense debate over what to cover (and not cover), how to cover it, how to be fair.

In how many businesses can a lowly staffer tell the top boss he is wrong and force a debate involving colleagues to resolve the issue? But that goes on in newsrooms all the time. And subtle issues, right down to whether a comma changes meaning, get debated every day in newsrooms.

How many people have any appreciation of the intense and daily efforts to stop honest reporting, often by the most powerful people in town and through the use of calculated lies and subtle smears? Now that I teach I suspect that few professors have any idea the efforts made to hound reporters who do serious work and to get them fired or complaint so intensely that editors want to just get away from the fabricated fray.

The public seldom hears about that, which we treat as inside baseball and not part of the story in most cases. And yet with a philosophy of journalism we might make such efforts at suppression more of the story and give it context.

As much of your essay points out, developing a philosophy of journalism would help reporters, editors, photographers and graphic make sense of the world with all of its subtleties and contradictions. And people must depend on journalists to tell them about the world, just as I must depend on a surgeon to remove a cancer or a plumber to clear my pipes or a teacher to educate my children. Specialization makes for efficiency, but it also makes for dependence.


Too few people appreciate that many of us have risked our lives for facts -- and without having to travel beyond the seemingly civilized American cities we worked in.

Give the enormous influence of mass media on decisions about self-governance we need to have more than a set of ethical principles, we need to develop in far more journalists a theory of fact-gathering and checking and cross-checking and of how to present facts to communicate so that readers, listeners and viewers are able to grasp these facts. We also need to do much more to challenge assumptions, our own and those of the audience.

With a philosophy of journalism we might get away from the over-reliance on reacting to what others SAID today or yesterday and pay more attention to what people in positions of political, economic and social power DID. And we might get more journalists to define what is news on their own, instead of being reactive.





20. tamarwilner - November 20, 2009 at 12:12 am

I was really excited to see this piece. As a journalist with a B.A. in philosophy, I've long thought there is shockingly little dialogue between these naturally connected subjects.

The author's point about university-based new media ventures was a good one but I think he draws a false dichotomy. No, media labs certainly shouldn't focus on superficial bells and whistles, embracing the new for newness' sake - but I think that we have not begun to grasp the ways that new techologies can help us tackle journalism's age-old failings. For example, the blessing and curse of online journalism is how easy and cheap it is to access. Can we harness this to reach marginalized groups who never felt that newspapaers and magazines were for them?

I was wondering if the author might be able to provide a list of resources for studying the intersection of journalism and philosophy - websites, books, important people in the field, etc. This information seems scarce and it would be a great help.

Many thanks
Tamar Wilner
www.tamarwilner.com

21. jason_brennan - November 24, 2009 at 10:52 am

Carl,

Since you are a journalist who claims to be concerned about truth, I wonder if you could provide evidence for the claims you make. When I read this article, I see a bunch of undefended assertions without sufficient evidence to back them. That strikes me as very bad journalism, as I understand journalism. (I haven't philosophized much about journalism, admittedly.) I look forward to seeing you correct these errors.

Jason Brennan

22. sagradstudent - November 24, 2009 at 01:04 pm

There is a fine line between being radical and merely being uninformed. I am convinced by Mr. Romano's argument that there are genuine and pressing problems in the philosophy of journalism. But such a claim fits easily within the traditios of academic analytic philosophy. It is only Mr. Romano's ignorance of the discipline as it is practiced today that makes him think he has discovered something profound.

Mr. Romano writes of the "historic insularity and inflexibility of philosophy," noting that "the field remains less diverse and intellectually adventurous than any of the other humanities." His explanation is that the traditional topics treated in philosophy departments are "chiefly cosmological, theological, and epistemological" in origin. All of these claims are plainly false to anyone who has so much as looked at a course catalog for a philosophy department. I am shocked that CHE allowed them to be published.

What are hot topics in academic philosophy today? Subjects that come to mind are the philosophy of quantum field theory, philosophy of evolutionary biology, Bayesian (statistical) decision theory, philosophy of tort law, democratic theory, global justice, and philosophy of cognitive science. Sure, there are lots of folks working on more traditional problems of philosophy and on the discipline's history, and these problems are important, too. But, if anything, these folks are in the minority among the academic mainstream!!

With these examples in mind, I think it makes perfect sense for journalists to be exposed to philosophy of journalism, just as future lawyers should be exposed to the philosophy of law, and future neuroscientists should know about problems in the philosophy of cognitive science. This claim, however, is pedestrian, and Mr. Romano is no radical. He is merely so out-of-touch with the discipline that he is barely capable of contributing.

23. couchmar - November 25, 2009 at 09:33 am

Mr. Romano writes: “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. . . . This makes philosophers, among other things, impossible guests on talk shows and hopeless sources for quotation.”

Perhaps this explains why philosopher John Searle recently appeared on a series about the brain on Charlie Rose, discussing consciousness, free will, perception, emotion, and cognition along with Eric Kandel, the nobel prize winner. What irrelevance!
http://www.charlierose.com/guest/view/6766

24. lenp2060 - November 29, 2009 at 11:27 pm

Mr. Romano pontificating on Journalism philosophy? Oh,that is indeed rich! Of course, he teaches both philosophy and media studies! Meaning, I take it, he has some kind of synergy going on with the two? And what, pray tell, is his philosophy of media? Let me guess: "we must have a free flow of ideas and information, just so long as guys like me can agree with it!! (e.g. Heidegger) and if not- to the book burning it goes!!!!"

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