What should journalists know of philosophy?

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Carlin Romano, critic at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education and former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has taken heat for his recent essay arguing that more philosophers ought to be taking up journalism as a focus of inquiry, and more aspiring journalists ought to be taking a class like the one he has taught at various colleges and university over the last 25 years. He summarizes that course thusly:

“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?”

lf philosophy blogs are any indication, Romano’s word was not kindly met. University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter thinks that the column’s real message was, “Why is Brian Leiter so mean to me?”  Apparently, they’ve had some sort of running feud. In any event, he dismisses Romano’s thesis:

“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.”

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More constructively, Ben Hale, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, picked up Leiter’s post and  suggested that philosophers might contribute the the discussion of journalism ethics. One of his commenters took specific exception to Leiter’s marginalization of journalism as a cultural practice:

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.)

Hans Holbling at the Galilean Library allowed that Romano’s goal – helping journalists’ become more “philosophically astute” — might be a worthy one, but he raises interesting questions about the how the field of philosophy would be advanced by a focus on journalism and media:

“If we have journalists who are able to question their own preconceptions, avoid inductive inferences from small data sets, and so on, then let’s suppose this is a good thing for both journalism and for those consuming the products of journalism. Why do we also need philosophers to understand the intersubjective standards setting these journalists report on? Unless we presuppose that only philosophers can teach the journalists to be more philosophically astute, or even if we don’t, it seems the development of philosophers can be left out of this. A more accurate requirement might be: we should get journalists to study the philosophical aspects of their work to help develop a more valuable form of journalism.”

like Holblin’s reformulation very much, and I see some value in Romano’s course. Indeed, much of my own journalism teaching is an attempt to engage students in philosophical reflection on the ethics, esthetics, epistemology, and rhetoric of journalism as it is practiced currently and historically in the United States. However, I am not a trained philosopher, and I work hard every semester to make up for that gap. So far, I’ve been able to do this without making my colleagues in our philosophy department retch, because my best and most demanding teacher, my father, started me reading Plato from the time I was about nine, and we’ve gone on from there.

Infusing philosophical literacy into journalism education

All of that said, I don’t think Romano’s required “Philosophy of Journalism” course is an adequate solution. Journalism education is being rethought, and should be, prompted largely by the fundamental shifts in economics and technology of newsgathering and delivery. I think Romano is particularly off-base when he argues that foundations and university journalism departments should require the formal study of the philosophy in order to “[focus] on long-standing gaps in journalism education” instead of the “bells and whistles of new technology, as if tweets will save us all.”  This, I submit, is a false choice.

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Instead, I would argue that we need to infuse philosophical thinking into every aspect of media study and practice. It’s a particularly good thing to do now because so many fundamental aspects of the field are changing. I don’t pretend to be an authority on how to do it, but it has to be done. I wish there was more of a conversation between journalists and philosophers — and here is where I agree with Romano —  because I suspect both fields could benefit. If, as I’ve read, philosophers do use news stories as a starting point for many of their own inquiries, why would it not be useful to understand how journalists and journalism scholars approach these issues?

So I thought it would be useful to run through a list of essential philosophical concepts and texts that journalists should understand: I will freely admit that in attempting this, I am exposing my own clumsiness with the subject, but that is the only way that I know of te learn. I welcome additions, including suggestions about the courses in which these concepts and texts might best fit. I will do that in one of the the posts that follows.

You can’t go home again

Mom, mid-1960s
Mom, mid-1960s

Hi Mommy,

It’s been awhile since I’ve written, although you know I’ve been talking to you every day. I have everything else in the world to think about this time of year, but my mind ventures back to 626 Pine Street in Camden – the neighborhood, our lives together there in the early 1960s. How many times did we talk and laugh about that narrow first-floor apartment with the big backyard in that rowhouse  that seemed so big to me.

You know I drove down there one a day off in 1990, parked across the street and just looked at that tiny little row house. There were workmen rehabbing the building and one of them,  seeing me with a nice car, professionally attired. struck up a conversation about how they were fixing things up, trying to bring the neighborhood back, and maybe I wanted to buy a nice investment property? Maybe so, I smiled. I used to live here when I was little, I volunteered. Then, you should come back and invest in the neighborhood, he said. Yes, I said, perhaps I should.

And I knew I wouldn’t. I had come back there for a glimpse of a world that no longer existed. I remember the sidewalk were I crouched and scratched at the dirt between the concrete slabs with a popsicle stick, trying to dig my way to China. I remember summer afternoons where people came out, swept and scrubbed their steps with a broom dipped in hot sudsy pine cleaner.  The step-scrubbing came only after the insides of our homes had been scrubbed, dusted, and tidied to a fare-thee-well, of course. And all of that might have come on top of a day’s work, or a night shift at the Campbell soup factory.

And here in an evening, or on a Saturday afternoon, the kids would play and the adults would sit on the steps and watch us. We were especially close to the Bennetts – Cheryl and Butch were a few years older than me, but they let me tag along behind them.  They had an older relative we knew as Aunt Sug, a wizened woman with ebony skin, care-worn hands and the kindest eyes. She sat in her lawn chair and regarded us with amusement. Occasionally, she’d share a clump of  her Argo starch with me. (Apparently, this starch-eating phenomenon surprised and distressed Northern physicians, who believed that it contributed to anemia and folic acid deficiency in pregnant women. This 1967 Time magazine article reported:

To their astonishment, Northern doctors have lately discovered that eating laundry starch is all the rage among Negro women—especially pregnant women—in many Northern-city slums. At D.C. General Hospital, Chief Obstetrician Dr. Earnest Lowe estimates that up to one-fourth of his patients are starch addicts. At Los Angeles County Hospital, three or four patients a week are diagnosed as having anemia apparently caused by starch binges.

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Aunt Sug also dispensed discipline.  Her favorite admonition was, “You better be good or I’ll shoot you!” Actually, she was always threatening to shoot me. The last time I saw her, I was leaving with Dad for the weekend and she said, “You’d better come back and see me, or I’m gonna shoot you!”  Years passed before I stopped being afraid that she really would come get me for not visiting her.

The neighbors congregated around the Bennetts’ steps to play checkers, drink Coca-Cola, and talk about the issues of the day. It was there that they debated whether the 1963 March on Washington would do any good. I have a couple of distinct memories of that time. One is the day that a bunch of men with fezzes marched down our street. I don’t know why. Another was the Saturday afternoon that someone shouted out, “Colored boy on American Bandstand!” and everybody ran in the house, turned on the TV and saw:

When the song ended, we ran back outside, excited.  The older kids knew all about him. “You know he blind?” “I’m gonna get that record!””What’s his name?””Little Stevie Wonder!”

I locked my car and walked down to the drugstore on the corner. That corner and that building fascinated me because both were triangle shaped:

The drug store, of course, was tiny compared to my memory. When you entered, the counter ran along the left side and the back wall, where the prescription counter stood. I remembered the two white men in white pharmacist’s jackets who worked there. There were shelves filled with merchandise in front of me. I don’t think that in the early 60s, the store had such an array of rat and roach killers: borax and Raid and those big-barreled pump-action insecticide spray guns. Rat traps. Bait. Mousetraps. I walked back to my car and looked my old house one more time.

Our apartment door was immediately on the right when you entered the house. A flight of stairs directly in front of you led to the upstairs apartment. There were also steps that went to the basement, where I occasionally went to visit toys that were stashed there, or to squash waterbugs. I don’t recall our upstairs neighbors. Open the door to our apartment and you are in a small living room. A couch is directly across from you. To the right of the couch, there’s a small bookcase that holds some volumes of children’s stories, a Bible, and a few odds and ends. A small black and white television is on the same wall as the door.

To the right of the living room area, there is the front room where you had her bedroom furniture. We slept there, except for when I slept on the couch. To the left was the kitchen, and behind that, a short hall that led to the back door. The  bathroom was tucked behind the kitchen, on your left as you went out to the backyard.

I remember the routines. How I would come home from kindergarten at the Broadway School and ask for permission to have a slice of bread and butter. It was my favorite treat. How you used to wash our clothes with a big old pink old wringer washer you’d been given, warning me not to ever go near it.

How, on Saturday morning, you would dress me in my itchy crinoline, vaseline on my legs,  anklet socks and patent leather shoes and we would walk to our storefront church. (I was always confused by that church, not only because we went on Saturday, but also because when you got to the front door, you would raise your hand in salute and say, “Hail!”) A woman at the door would do the same gesture, and we would go in for the service, where I was frequently pressed to sing, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” Other than that and the memory of you singing with the a cappella choir, I only remember that the other kids in the church were two boys. Sometimes we were allowed to leave the service and sit in the kitchen. The boys got me to play this game where we took one of the pennies we had for the collection plate, licked it, and stuck it to our forehead. I think the object was to make your penny stick the longest. It was great fun until one of the boys swallowed his penny. They made him eat a lot of bread. It took a couple of years before I realized how that was supposed to make the penny come out.

I think I was about six when the Pastor of that church, Evangelist Crowdy, died in a car accident. John Facenda announced it on the news. I didn’t tell you. I don’t think I understood what death was. Eventually, a church member told you and you came and told me. When I told you I had seen it on the news, you were shocked. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I didn’t have an answer. I do recall filing past his coffin with you. I think I touched his hand. It felt funny.

I remember the special times, too. Two moments stand out for me. There was my fifth birthday, when you threw me a party and Cousin Ralphie and I danced the Twist.

Ralphie and I did the up and down part, to the floor and back, while the adults cheered us on:

You gave me a tricycle, which was my favorite of favorite toys until I got a two-wheeler three years later. Here we are, cutting the cake as Ralphie looks on:

Cutting the cake

The other was from being the flower girl in your best friend’s wedding. I never felt so pretty as I did that day. My first time having my hair straightened and curled, so it looked more like yours.

I was the flower girl, Mom was the bridesmaid
I was the flower girl, Mom was the bridesmaid

I know. You want me to talk about the coat. How it was a blazing hot day, and we’d walked to Broadway.It was a big and busy street, then, prosperous enough that there was actually a Tiffany’s jewelry store. Not our destination, though. We went to the Goodwill. I needed clothes. While you were browsing the short sets, I saw a red ski jacket. I had to have it. You said no. I whined. You said no, again. I whined louder. This went a couple of rounds until you got frustrated and said, “Fine!” You bought the coat and insisted that I wear it home. I whined about being hot. Suddenly, you seemed to have gone deaf.

You laughed about that for years afterward.

And of course, an account of Pine Street wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the time I walked into a brick wall. It’s not as stupid as it sounds. Well, it is, but I keep in mind that i was about five. I was playing Space Monsters in the backyard with my friends. The narrow lane on the side of the house was the safe area; the backyard was where the space monsters could grab you and make you blind. We would run out, be “blinded,” and have to find our way back into the alley. That was how I walked into the wall – my eyes were closed. Mom they’re laughing. Hey, I was five. Give me a break!

I remember the gush of blood from my forehead. I remember walking into the kitchen where you were cooking. I was trailing blood on the hall floor. I remember saying, “Mommy,” and I remember your horrified face. I must have looked a bloody mess – you know how they say face wounds look worse than they are. I remember you getting a washcloth and my face turning it bloody red. Somehow, Uncle Sonny was summoned, and he carried me to the ER in his arms.

It occurs to me now that you were only about 22 when this happened, and he was even younger.

Since then, I have carried a small dent on my forehead.

Sleepytime, Mommy. I missed you at Thanksgiving. I love you very much.


New fantasy app: GIGO for public databases and websites

Eva Martin, ex-slaveOne of the most important and powerful features of computational journalism is the ability to pull information from multiple databases and remix them in a variety of ways. Of course, that means that errors in those databases will be compounded and remixed as well. I wrote a bit about this problem in an October 27, 2009 post for Blogher:

“Last April, Amy Gahran blogged a Los Angeles Times story revealing that a crime map featured on the Los Angeles police department website was producing faulty data because of an error in the software that plotted the locations of specific crimes. Thus, crime clusters were showing up in low-crime neighborhoods, and some high-crime areas appeared deceptively safe. The error was particularly vexing for the high-profile news aggregator, Everyblock.com, which relied on the maps and as part of its coverage.”

The thing is, that kind of error is relatively easy to solve, compared to other kinds of errors that crop up in public records.

For example,  sometimes we learn that database information is erroneous long after it is created.  For example, police corruption scandals can throw years of crime data into doubt. In Philadelphia in the 1990s, revelations of drug dealing, and other criminal acts by officers in the city’s 39th precinct cast doubt on 1400 prior criminal convictions.  However, if I obtain records from the Philadelphia courts or district attorney’s office for that period, can I necessarily be sure that the appropriate asterisks have been retroactively applied to those cases?

Here’s a more challenging example — not about errors in a database, but potential errors in data interpretation. About 10 years ago, I taught an interdisciplinary humanities course for which I used the University of Virginia’s online exhibit drawn from the WPA slave narratives. It’s an invaluable collection that includes transcripts and even some audio recordings from the late 1930s. The collection has an equally invaluable disclaimer designed to help contemporary readers place the narratives in appropriate historical context:

Often the full meanings of the narratives will remain unclear, but the ambiguities themselves bear careful consideration. When Emma Crockett spoke about whippings, she said that “All I knowed, ’twas bad times and folks got whupped, but I kain’t say who was to blame; some was good and some was bad.” We might discern a number of reasons for her inability or unwillingness to name names, to be more specific about brutalities suffered under slavery. She admitted that her memory was failing her, not unreasonable for an eighty-year-old. She also told her interviewer that under slavery she lived on the “plantation right over yander,”and it is likely that the children or grandchildren of her former masters, or her former overseers, still lived nearby; the threat of retribution could have made her hold her tongue.

Even with the disclaimers, I found some students concluded that the slaves interviewed had not suffered that much in captivity. I had to help them to read the documents in historical and cultural context. As more primary documents become accessible to people who aren’t experts in the subject matter, the opportunity for misreading and missing the context of those documents multiply.

So I was thinking, what is there was a kind of wiki for collecting errors in public databases, enhanced with a widget that could be embedded in any website? Call it GIGO: Garbage In Garbage Out. Create an online form that would allow people to submit errors – with appropriate documentation, of course. Perhaps use the kind of vetting process, Hakia.com uses to come up with a list of credible sites in response to a given search request. (Here’s an example of a Hakia search on global warming.)  What do you think?