Thursday, November 19, 2009

Philosophers and ink stained wretches

Carlin Romano claims we need courses in the Philosophy of Journalism. Is he right?

Romano suggests that philosophy of journalism belongs in the philosophy curriculum just as philosophy of law, philosophy of science, or philosophy of religion do. I'm not sure about this. I don't see that there are fundamental metaphysical questions in journalism as there are in science or religion. Nor does journalism present analogous conceptual questions associated with philosophy of law (the nature or law or legal norms, for example).

On the other hand, I'm not a journalist (though I did play one as the crusading editor of my high school newspapers), and Romano does make a case that journalism and philosophy could fruitfully enrich one another. I'm not so convinced that, as Romano claims, philosophy and journalism are united as "the two humanistic intellectual activities that most boldly (and some think obnoxiously) vaunt their primary devotion to truth." (Science, anyone?) The central prerogative of academic philosophy may be "publish or perish," but that goes all the more for journalism. Sure, truth matters in journalism, but it matters differently. For one thing, the truth has to sell. Second, philosophy (on my view, at least) aims to understand. As Sellars put it, it is the endeavor "to see how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term." Journalism rarely has such comprehensive truth-seeking as its aim, and indeed, much of what strikes me as deficient about the contemporary journalistic media is not that it fails to discern truth. Rather, the truths it discerns rarely help us understand anything worth understanding.

That being said, Romano points out that journalism is an arena of human affairs rife with meaty philosophical interest. In democratic societies, journalists should be tasked with doing critical thinking directed not only at their subjects but at their own profession.
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.
Simultaneously, journalism is a laboratory for thinking about philosophical problems in a concrete way:
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.
So: philosophy of journalism -- yea or no? And if so, how is this distinct from 'media ethics'?


  1. I don't think we need philosophy of journalism in the way we need philosophy of law, religion, or science, for many of the same reasons as you give. I do think it can be profitable in the philosophy classroom to attend to journalism for examples of good and bad argumentation, which many informal logic and critical thinking courses do. And it would be good for philosophers who want to be public philosophers to learn how to write for a newspaper or magazine in an effective manner, which is of course very different than writing for a journal.

  2. Do we need courses in the philosophy of journalism? I think to answer this question we need to consider who the "we" is. Presumably, it is either journalism departments (as Romano seems to argue at the end of the article) or it is philosophy departments (as he seems to argue at the beginning), though he could be considering the universal "we" (in which case I think the answer is obvious: no).

    I will leave it to journalism departments to decide if they think they would benefit from such a course. A lot of departments (engineering, accounting, etc.) already have their own ethics courses taught in their departments, usually not taught by philosophers. There is no reason journalism departments couldn't add a "Philosophy of Journalism" class to their requirements, just as most social science departments have their own statistics classes taught (usually) by professors in their department rather than professors in the statistics department. I certainly can't fail to agree with Romano that such a course would attract exactly those students who would benefit, those interested in both philosophy and journalism.

    But, like Mike above, I don't think philosophy needs philosophy of journalism classes. I don't think it is a central enough focus of philosophers to significantly benefit a philosophy major (at least compared to alternatives), while at the same time it won't be popular enough that seats will be filled by those who aren't philosophy majors (unlike Business Ethics, for example).

    Finally, if what really is needed are "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", why should we think journalism would be the subject to best provide us that understanding? Don't many professional departments, including accounting and medicine, also work on exactly these same things? If philosophers do need these skills, maybe rather than a course specifically in Philosophy of Journalism, they need a course in "Practical Epistemology" that examines how each of many different professions establishes and recognizes truth claims. I would take that class!

  3. Hi I am from Australia.

    Perhaps we do need a "philosophy" of journalism--especially as most journalists are just apologists for the powers that be.

    This reference describes in stark terms how conventional media works--especially right wing media (no real questions--let alone Real answers allowed)


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