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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The emotions of democratic journalism

Often, when I speak to audiences about impartial, objective journalism, my listeners are skeptical about the very idea.

Some say that everyone has biases so objectivity is a myth. Others voice another complaint: An impartial journalist is a bloodless eunuch. She pretends to have no feelings on the issue at hand; she is “detached” and “disinterested” — which means she is uncaring. Who wants to be that sort of person, let along that sort of journalist? Journalistic eunuchs are strange creatures in an age of personal, multimedia journalism.

This misunderstanding ignores two central facts: First, the ideal of impartial journalism never asked journalists to be that sort of person; second, a belief in objective reporting is grounded in emotions – in an emotional commitment to the best possible journalism.

Journalism as “eros”

No one can effectively practice impartial journalism without a deep and unwavering love of truth-seeking through evidence-based inquiry. Plato described philosophy as a form of love, an “eros” for wisdom. Similarly, impartial journalism is an “eros” for insightful, well-supported public journalism. Without this emotion, talk of impartiality has no motivating power.

Does this mean that impartiality and objectivity are biases? Yes, they are biases. But not all biases are equal. The bias towards impartiality justifies itself by its positive impact on journalism. It is not an unquestioning bias. Also, the bias towards impartiality is a positive bias that works against negative, distorting biases, e.g. such as wishful thinking, ignoring contrary facts, and promoting stereotypes about others.

Impartiality in journalism means: caring enough about reaching the truth to not prejudge the story before inquiry; to be willing to step back critically from one’s beliefs to learn from others; to follow all of the facts wherever they lead.

This is my notion of pragmatic objectivity in journalism. On my view, objectivity and impartiality do not require a journalist (or any professional) to have no values, no purposes, no cares; to have no opinions and to be neutral about everything.

Impartiality and objectivity as bloodless norms is an absurd caricature. How could such ideas have arisen?  It has a lot to do with how our culture often fails to think carefully about the emotions and their place in democracy.

‘Educating’ the emotions

One simplistic view is that the emotions undermine our rationality and need to be excluded from logical thinking. Another view is just the opposite: We need to trust our emotions and not be controlled by that old despot, reason.

A better view, espoused by philosopher John Dewey, avoids both extremes. Dewey thought that, as individuals and as a society, we need to ‘educate our emotions’ so as not be controlled by them; we need to learn to integrate our emotions and reasoning faculties to reach more satisfying levels of experience and more democratic forms of community.

On this view, our emotions and values are essential components of good reasoning and inquiry. They are part of good communal deliberation about issues. However, the right emotions, directed in the right manner, must be operating in specific situations.

For example, when it comes to democratic deliberation among different viewpoints, the best method of inquiry is not subjective ranting and unfair verbal warfare; nor do we want sloppy and wishful thinking to be dominate. What we need is a strong emotional commitment to verification, openness to other perspectives, respectful disagreement and evidence-based claims.

In short, we need impartial and objective forms of inquiry and journalism.

Therefore, our education system and other agencies should teach citizens to wisely use their emotions to enhance democracy. One way is to give students and citizens places where they can participate in deliberative fora.

We need to educate our emotions so that we value and enjoy deliberating in fair and impartial ways. We need to educate our emotive habits – that is, the emotions we favor, e.g. anger over calmness, and how we typically respond to situations. Whether we favor compassion or callousness, or whether we prefer to deliberate with people or shout at them, much depends on the culture and the media in which we are immersed.

This is not to deny value to the occasional burst of righteous anger or strong emotion in democratic discourse; nor is it to deny the value of expressing oneself freely. Deliberative discussion is not tepid ‘politically correct’ discussion. Between ranting and politically correct discussion, there is lots of room for fair, inclusive and deliberative discussion among citizens.

Journalism and democratic emotions

Dewey’s view of emotions has a direct implication for the debate over what forms of journalism our democracy needs. It implies that we need journalists and journalism programs that create what I call “deliberative spaces” in opposition to the partisan commentators on radio and the intolerant bloggers online.

We need journalists who have educated their emotions so as to prefer deliberative communication; we need media spaces that allow a deliberative citizenry to exist; and we need citizens who have emotional habits that favor deliberative forms of journalism.

Impartial public journalism seeks to develop the moral character of journalists so that their love of evidence, verification, accuracy, fairness and impartiality are strong enough to motivate their inquiries.

We need to educate the emotions of journalists.

Dewey also said that we evaluate our biases by seeing how they help us inquiry correctly into, and deal with fairly, the substantive issues of the day. In terms of journalism, the question becomes: Which form of journalism, overall, promotes the sort of journalism we need today – partial or impartial journalism?

I think that, for deliberative democracy, there is greater value in impartial journalism than partisan journalism, especially a partisan journalism that uses extreme emotions and polarizing discourse to inform citizens.

The claim that democracy only needs a robust free press exaggerates the value of free speech for democracy.

So the next time you listen to the non-deliberative commentary by Rush Limbaugh or watch “talking heads” angrily attack each other on TV, ask yourself this: Are we, as a society, training ourselves to emotionally accept (and support) such displays of emotion?

In my estimate, angry, non-deliberative voices are non-democratic voices. The fact that they enjoy free speech as individuals does not make them democrats as citizens.

So where, I ask you, do we find today the deliberative media spaces that we need? Is our culture increasingly non-deliberative in its media and in its broader values?

Our hope for deliberative democracy depends, in the long run, on what social habits of discussion we foster in schools, in public meetings, in institutions, and in our newsrooms.

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