Philosophers and journalists – unlikely bedfellows? Bourdieu in the house!

[Thanks Jess for the link]

An interesting, if a little obtuse piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week about the fractious relationship between philosophy and journalism. I was struck most immediately by this paragraph, which IMHO sums up the situation reasonably well:

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.

Carlin Romano, We need ‘Philosophy of Journalism’

There’s another key statement in Carlin’s piece that I also identify with quite strongly. Here he’s talking about the insoluble and necessary link between journalistic and philosophical modes of thinking:

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.

There is no doubt for me that journalism is — at it’s core — an intellectual pursuit that has a high public interest attached to it. There is a necessary couplet between journalism as a practice and theories of democratic public discourse. It is an imperfect linkage — one that’s distorted by the ideological contortions of logic necessary to justify capitalism as a social formation and the dismal science of economics as some sort of rational explanation for human behaviour and human nature (both of which I utterly reject).

This is a long post, so you might want to print it off and read at your leisure. I am keen to discuss Carlin Romano’s timely essay, but also to further explore my own thinking in relation to what I regard as a core philosophical approach to journalism scholarship — the use of the dialectic as an organising and analytical tool to understand the social relations of news production in the widest sense.

Carlin’s essay is timely because of the contemporaneous crisis in both journalism and the news industry. At conference after conference over the past two years these themes have been dominant. So far, no lasting, sustainable or even solid answers have been put forward; there’s a lot of scrambling about and some good experimental work being done, but to some extent it is excavating only a few layers down from the surface. There are few real attempts to overturn a flawed epistemology, or to construct a new paradigm for journalism scholarship. That’s where the real intersection of journalism and philosophy must lie.

The real question must be: How do we construct a new paradigm; a new philosophical foundation for the study and the practice of journalism? Obviously, teaching some aspects of history, sociology, economics, political economy, cultural and media studies, law and ethics provides some intellectual props to claim a kind of inter-disciplinary “philosophy” of journalism. But, it is not enough to pull together elements from different parts of the academy; there is a burning need for journalists and journalism scholars to solve their own problems. As a doctor of journalism I believe whole-heartedly in the adage: “Physician heal thyself!”

Where I do beg to differ is with Carlin’s prescription for what might be in a course of philosophy for journalism students. His outlined curriculum  doesn’t really seem all that exciting or different and much of it is really a course in ethics, rather than broader philosophical questions:

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?

Most of this – certainly parts 1-3 are consistently taught in most journalism ethics courses in some form or another. My ethics text, Journalism Ethics: Arguments & Cases (co-authored with Professor Roger Patching of Bond University) is founded on these topics and it takes basically a philosophical approach. Arguments & Cases also examines the premise of Part 4 as well; particularly in terms of the problematic construction of journalism as a profession.

So, while I have no real argument with the suggestion that journalism education should have a philosophical component, I do question two aspects:

  • Should ‘philosophy of journalism’ be taught by philosophers or doctors of journalism?

I have no hesitation in suggesting that the best people to teach this stuff are the qualified former practitioners who have had time to reflect on their own practice and to absorb some of the best thinking. I don’t necessarily agree that classically-trained philosophers are the best to do this important work. In my experience those outside the community of journalistic practice bring too many intellectual prejudices and pre-c0nceptions to the table.

  • What philosophical ideas, approaches and theories are of most value in a journalism curriculum?

Here’s a first take on a ‘Baker’s Dozen’: some quick notes on what I think should be included in any philosophy of journalism discourse:

  1. Critical thinking skills: The most important item in a journalist’s toolkit is a functioning and lively brain.
  2. Political economy of news production: This is a neglected, but powerful intellectual tradition in journalism studies with real global significance and explanatory power.
  3. A critique of professionalism and the sociology of journalism as a form of labour. On any consistent political economy model of journalism it is not a profession — because of the relationship between media labour and media capital. But journalists occupy a contradictory class location which we call “professionalism”.
  4. The role of journalists as the “quotidian intellectual” — the intellectual of the everyday and the populariser of arcane ideas (including philosophy): Journalists play a significant role in the explanation of the everyday and the circulation of ideological memes of power, control and resistance.
  5. The dialectic of journalism: Moving on from Merrill’s important work on this topic to clearly articulate a material dialectic of journalism that accounts for social relations of news production and the power of social forces (re-focusing on Raymond Williams for example)
  6. Critique of the Fourth Estate model: the Fourth Estate is a bastion of bourgeois philosophy — a world view that supports the inequality of class relations in capitalist society. How do we move beyond it?
  7. Journalism of engagement: the stand-off observer, versus the committed and activist journalist.
  8. The heroes of journalism: Who are they and why? This relates neatly to the previous point. For example John Pilger, Martha Gelhorn, etc, including modern writers and journalists from Hunter Thompson to Robert Fisk.
  9. Digital dilemmas: the role of “citizen journalism” (and a solid definition); the tensions between journalism and social media. This would cover the techno-legal and techno-ethical time gap and critique digital determinism as an explanatory method for the current malaise in journalism and the news industry.
  10. Ethics: objectivity, balance and bias. Despite 20 years of critical discussion and attempts to bury the curse of objectivity, this debate is not yet resolved and needs to be fully addressed in any philosophical discussion of journalism. The answers are, IMHO, related to the dialectic and particularly the material dialectic that drives social formations in their interactions with the real (natural) world.
  11. Ethics: What is the continued relevance of 18th and 19th century philosophers? Seriously, the world is not the 19th century any more and the continued valorisation of Locke, Hume, Mill (both of them), etc is boring, pointless and out-of-date. What the fcuk is a “Wittgenstinian way” of looking at language in the news and why is it still relevant?
  12. The epistemology of truth and the relativity of postmodernism: There is a need to actually take on critically all ideas associated with postmodernism and the cultural studies approach to journalism and media studies. This is related to my point about materialist dialectics.If there is a definitive and objective version of truth, it is found in the materiality of social relation and in society’s relationship with the physical world; it is not found in relative perceptions of the truth that have any sort of equal validity.
  13. The power and politics of journalism: This has to be more than looking descriptively at the relationship between journalism and the State. it has to unpick and critique this relationship through framing and discourse analysis; political economy etc. The relationship between journalism and centres of political, economic and social power is a key issue for the philosophy of journalism, but it is a material, not an ideal question. The relationship is grounded in political economy and existing/flawed social institutions. To fully explore this we have to start from a very basic question: What is the real nature of democracy and why is it flawed in practice?

There’s perhaps other stuff too to go into this list, but I always have a penchant for the symmetry of 13 items in a list; it gives you more room than in a “Top 10” and it’s not “round” like a straight dozen. Also, it gives you a good outline for a semester’s worth of study – given that most academic terms are around 12-15 weeks in duration. But again, this is no more than a list of topics to be discussed. What is needed at this point is some organising principle(s) that can unite these problems and issues, or at least suggest a cogent and more philosophical approach.

Some might react by just poking a bit more of the old-school theory in here; a bit more Wittgenstien, perhaps some existentialism, or more on deontology and teleology. That’s what I’ve done in the past, but in rethinking my approach to teaching a course on journalism law and ethics at AUT next year, I have finally realised that I need to move away from this model and go where my instincts have always led me — towards a more holistic approach based on a coherent philosophical approach — the materialist dialectic.

Faultines, philosophy and the material dialectic

In relation to my “9” above — Digital dilemmas, I rather like this observation from Carlin, which echoes some of my own thinking about those who “breathlessly” imagine a brave new world of social media sans journalists:

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.

But what is a “more classical, full-bloodedly philosophical approach to journalism”? As Carlin suggests at an earlier point in his essay, classical philosophy in the academy is moribund. Carlin writes that philosophy as a discipline is overcome by “historic insularity and inflexibility” and that it “remains less diverse and intellectually adventurous than any of the other humanities”. As I’ve suggested, to fall back on Locke and the bourgeois philosophers would be a huge and limiting mistake. Rather than reproduce these (now ancient) memes, we need to thoroughly critique them and put in their place some new and original thinking.

I always return to the dialectic in these circumstances and I am currently in the process of revising and extending my use of the concept in News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet? I have been working on this now for some 12 years, perhaps even a little longer and I’m confident that I’m making some headway.

I’ve touched on the dialectic in journalism as a foundation theoretical/philosophical device  in both Arguments and Cases and Broadcast to Narrowcast. I use it often to talk about “fault lines”, “gaps”, “continua” (continuums?), combined and uneven development and the key contradictions — such as between public and private interests in the news media. It is also a useful way of dealing with technology, without falling back onto determinist arguments.

The foundation document for my work in this area is still John Merrill’s The Dialectic in Journalism. Merrill is an American of libertarian persuasion and his use of the dialectic really begins and ends with Hegel, but this book is perhaps still one of the most philosophical texts about journalism. Merrill is right to speak of “antinomes” in journalism which are really antagonistic couplets; such as “freedom” and “responsibility”, which exist as competing organising principles within the epistemology of journalism.

However, in a materialist sense they are more than just clashing ideals, they are manifest in the social relations that pertain to the organisation of journalism as a labour process and as a set of cultural practices with some significance in bourgeois-liberal social formations.

In other words, not only do “freedom” and “responsibility” clash inside the heads of journalists faced with dilemmas of ethical decision-making; they are also manifest institutionally, economically and politically and embody a range of concrete and unequal power relationships that determine what Bourdieu calls the journalistic field***.

The same is true of the “public” and the “private”, which are not only antinomes (clashing theses) in relation to “public interest” and the ethico-legal paradox of “privacy”, but also in relation to the central economic contradiction expressed in the news commodity form between use value (public interest) and exchange value (expressed in money), which is a private concern within a capitalist political economy.

But this viewpoint is not readily available to an idealistic accounting of the dialectic; it is really only revealed – philosophically speaking – when meshed with materialism and theories of the field:

The field of journalism has a particularity: It is much more dependent on the external forces than any other field of cultural production, such as the field of mathematics, the field of literature, the field of judiciary, the field of science and so forth. It directly depends on the demands of actors outside of the journalistic fields. It is more dependent on the sanction of market and to popularity, probably, than the field of politics. (Bourdieu 1996: 61)

The sanctions of the market are not central to an idealistic account, which sees the issue only in terms of a moot philosophical internal dialogue within the journalist’s brain. It is, however, a concrete and very real situation in which the materiality of social relations — as relations of unequal power between social actors — are very important:

Journalists—I should say the field of journalism—owe their importance in the social world to the fact that they actually monopolize the instruments of production and diffusion of information to a large degree, and through instruments, they also monopolize the access of ordinary people as well as other cultural producers including servants, artists and writers to what was once called “public space”, that is, the ground of diffusion. (Bourdieu 1996: 52)

Thus the monopoly of the instruments of journalistic production (the boundaries of the professional reportorial community) creates the social power of journalists and journalism. But obviously, we have to account for the fact that this monopoly is now breaking down thanks to the rise of what I call “user-generated news-like content”, which includes citizen journalism, blogs, and some social media functions. Thus the dialectic becomes instantly important: How can we understand the shifting balance of power and the dynamic of changing social relations of news production without first understanding the process of combined and uneven development that creates contradictions within the field?

In this case of course, one aspect of the dialectic (as a constellation of social forces acting on each other [combined and uneven development]) is obviously the technologies and platforms that create the social conditions for user-generated content to become influential and to have social power that tends to breakdown the traditional journalistic monopoly over the means of production.

There’s  a further contradiction here too that both field theory and the dialectic of journalism can usefully address: the monopoly over the means of journalistic production (even if under threat/pressure from UGC and social media) is actually shared (unequally) between media practitioners (labourers) and media capital (which owns the actual means of production in a Marxist schema).

The analytical tools to address, understand and move beyond this are not present in formal and traditional philosophy which, IMHO, is no more than a rehashing of bourgeois ideology and apologetics. This inability to move beyond the power relations pertaining to the field of academic philosophy is one reason why it is so rigid, hidebound and unable to meet the tasks set by the digital contradictions of the twenty-first century.

I have no real issue with Carlin’s prescription that “every journalism student” should undertake several courses in journalism theory. Carlin’s suggestions are eminently sensible and go some way to engaging with my Baker’s Dozen:

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.

Now we’ve moved on from one paper to possibly three; maybe they should be sequential through three years of an undergraduate programme. But at the grad school level, if you’re trying to teach non-journalists enough of the basics (from reporting, to shorthand to digital production techniques and some legal/ethical principles) where do you find the room for three philosophy papers?

The problem that I wrestle with in the face of such obviously sensible advice is what do we leave out, or replace? More importantly, at an institutional level I struggle to convince some of my non-journalism colleagues that we need to be given the curriculum space and resources to develop papers in history, comparative journalism and philosophy. Each university school of communication studies and/or journalism is different, but in each case other academics (from various communication disciplines) and administrators are unwilling to make the bold moves that will actually generate the potential for a better journalism curriculum.

You see, there’s even a dialectic in play here — the process of combined and uneven curriculum development, linked to the intertia of the academic field and its inherent resistance to change that might threaten entrenched interests. The third leg of this “triadic movement” as Merrill calls it, is the reluctance of industry to challenge its own preconceptions about what makes a good journalism education.

Why do some senior editors and industry officials continue to priviledge shorthand over philosophy? I think I know the answers, but I am not prepared to commit them to published form; let’s just say, perhaps some old inky-fingered hacks just don’t get it.

*** I am currently revising the manuscript for News 2.0 and it contains a significant section outlining my approach to Bourdieu and field theory. In general I can say that I think it is important and worthy of serious study. It perhaps comes closest to developing the outlines of a new paradigm and epistemology for journalism scholarship. The following would certainly be on my list of recommended reading for anyone serious about this topic:

Benson and Neveu (2004) : Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field

Pierre Bourdieu (1996): On Television and Journalism

4 Responses to Philosophers and journalists – unlikely bedfellows? Bourdieu in the house!

  1. […] Philosophers and journalists – unlikely bedfellows? Bourdieu in the house! […]

  2. db says:

    In New Zealand there is also the opportunity to raise the question of “the public” through the ways Māori are routinely both co-opted for and excluded from the “New Zealand public” addressed by the mainstream media, in banal and predictable fashion…

  3. […] got a little historical and philosophical when we talked about how, without the benefit of the bourgeois revolutions (particularly the French […]

  4. Dave says:

    Hello guys? I am not sure if this is the right forum,but I need some help for my Media Law course. Here is the question.

    Using relevant examples differentiate between aspects of morality and media law in practice of journalism while informing masses through the electronic media.

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