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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

In Your Face: The Ethics of Opinion Journalism

In March, Sun TV News, Canada’s newest all-news TV station, is scheduled to begin broadcasting amid concern it will follow Fox News – feature hosts that are fiercely partisan and opinionated.

Across the border, Americans debate the future of the Fox News model. Will it spread to CNN? Or, did MSNBC, by parting ways with partisan host Keith Olbermann, signal a return to moderate opinion journalism?

The debate is roiled by worries that extreme media destroy civility in public life, perhaps even cause violence. When a gunman shot a congresswoman and others outside a Tucson supermarket in January, some media reports blamed extreme media.

treated photo of Keith Olbermann

Photo by of srqpix/Creative Commons

Supporters of partisan commentary reject any link with gunmen. To the contrary, they assert the great value of their journalism. Typically, the reasoning is: Objectivity is false and bias is unavoidable, so journalists should be honest with themselves and take sides on issues.

All claim to have a duty to tell the public the truth. Conservative journalists claim they are compensating for a dominant liberal press; the liberals claim the reverse. Moderate journalism is not what America needs today.

Is this reasoning plausible? I think not.

The existence of immoderate voices has social value. Silencing loud voices means silencing dissent and silencing whatever truth they have to offer. But it is an exaggeration to praise this journalism as crucial to democracy, or as the best form of opinion journalism.

The fact is this: If immoderate forms of opinion dominate public discussion, it can do more harm than good to democracy. Therefore, assumptions behind the praise of immoderate journalism need to be challenged.

Here are two assumptions:

(1) Freedom is all you need: The central value of opinion journalism is the freedom to opine. Or the freedom to spread the truth as you see fit. Talk of ethics as norms that restrain (or guide) the expression of opinion is tantamount to self-censorship or political correctness.

(2) All praise this clash of loud voices: A clash of free, boisterous voices is very good for society; a sign of democracy and a healthy public sphere.

These ideas derive from an old and discredited libertarian theory of the press and its over-confident belief in a free marketplace of ideas – ideas recycled for today’s partisan press.

In case you think I’m exaggerating, consider an article by Jack Shafer, the usually insightful commentator for Slate.com.

Shortly after the Tucson shooting, Shafer rightly questioned media reports that assumed a link between the shooting and extreme opinion. Shafer went beyond that to defend extreme opinion. He called his article: “In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric: The awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting.” Shafer suggests that anyone who argues for civility in public life wants to censor free expression.

But Shafer’s otherwise sharp analysis avoids a crucial question: Doesn’t civil discourse also have value, and is it needed today? The article exaggerates the value of inflamed rhetoric, and deploys the old bugbear that moderate voices are enemies of free speech.

Ethics for deliberative media

In this climate, moderate democrats should articulate an ethics for opinion journalism which takes as its primary question: What does democracy need from its news media?

My answer is: Democracy needs deliberative opinion journalism, a way of discussing issues that is much more important to our democracy than the strident journalism of Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, and the rest of the partisan troupe.

The most important form of opinion journalism is a journalism that creates deliberative spaces in news media. These spaces, online and offline, allow citizens of different views to speak respectfully but frankly to each other.

The basic norms of deliberative journalism can be expressed as a set of commitments:

1. Commitment to evidence-based inquiry: Opinion should be rigorously based on a wide range of evidence, solid studies, and perspectives on the data. I am ready to follow the facts where they lead.

2. Commitment to the overall public good: Opinion should be guided by what is best for the public as a whole, not what is expedient for my cause or my political group. I should not be so attached to my ‘truth’ that I am ready to use almost any means to persuade others and to promote my aims.

3. Commitment to telling the whole truth: Opinion should not hide inconvenient facts. I am not willing to distort the truth to suit my aims. I do not misrepresent the views of others and I do not demonize them.

4. Commitment to listening and learning: Opinion journalism should not just opine. It should seek discussion. It aims to develop better perspectives on issues. It should evolve. Therefore, I should listen to others, and be willing to alter my position. Shouting down opponents shows only that I am a rigid ideologue, not a democrat.

Deliberative commentators approach public discussion in a distinct manner. The aim is not to simply express a viewpoint; it is not about portraying those who disagree as unpatriotic enemies who must be crushed; it is not a winner-take-all affair. Deliberation is not a monologue. It is social and cooperative. It expects robust disagreement, but it also seeks areas of compromise and new solutions.

These commitments form the mind set of any rational, fair inquirer from scientist and judge to journalist. But these virtues struggle to be accepted fully in journalism. Partisan commentators across the political spectrum regularly violate these norms. Much of their “inflammatory rhetoric” is not rational persuasion but outright propaganda and ideology.

Deliberative journalism is still found in thoughtful op-ed pieces in newspapers, on the programs of public broadcasters, and elsewhere. But their impact on discussion declines because reasonable dialogue gets lost in a sea of immoderate media spaces.

Will Sun TV be deliberative?

Using these norms, we can distinguish the partisans — Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann — from deliberative commentators such as the conservative David Brooks and the liberal Paul Krugman.

Deliberative liberals, not libertarians, are the true inheritors of the liberal tradition. The purpose of a free marketplace of ideas is not simply to allow people to express themselves. It exists not only to allow a clash of voices. A free marketplace exists so that individuals cannot live in an ideological silo, avoiding other ideas and contrary facts. Engagement with other views is the only way to construct rational public opinion on issues.

But this engagement can’t even get started without a willingness to deliberate.

In a pluralistic society, a deliberative opinion journalism that skirts the extremes and brings people together is surely the journalism that our democracy needs.

When Canadians watch the Sun TV news channel, I invite them to use the norms of deliberative journalism to evaluate the new programs.

The Canadian public sphere will be best served if the new programs practice deliberative opinion journalism, and resist the lure of partisan commentary.

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