Rational journalism?

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Rational argumentation
s t r i k e s   b a c k

by Esa Reunanen

On 12 December 2015, a Finnish current affairs television talk show, Press Club (Pressiklubi), published on their Facebook page a parody of a comment from a viewer:

My dear producers of the talk show,

In your show, you often express opinions that differ from mine. These opinions are often also substantiated with many kinds of arguments. I don’t like this way of doing a program at all. I hope that in the future you would focus on presenting me only opinions that I already have. If you give arguments, these also should support opinions that I already have. I am especially worried because I know that everybody else except me and my friends are completely carried away by the media and they take everything said there at face value.

With best wishes, pseudonym ‘I don’t watch your program because it sucks’

P.S. One friend of mine would like you to publish more such opinions that are not supported by any evidence. Presenting this kind of opinions would be the best way to challenge the propaganda of the hegemonic media. I hope you take my friend’s wishes into consideration.

P.P.S. I know that you aren’t able to accept any kind of criticism and this is why you greet all criticism with scorn. I don’t accept any explanations for why some criticism is not sensible and why criticism should also be criticized. This has all been for your information – you poor slaves of despicable masters!

This parody, in all likelihood, resembles comments the producers have received from the viewers. It also bears semblance to social media discussions on heated topics like immigration or economic policy. People circulate texts supporting their own prejudices, and they show no interest in deviant reasoning.

On my interpretation, this parody mocks the kind of discussion just described, rather celebrating rational debate in which different opinions are evaluated by critical argumentation, and intellectual shortcomings are revealed by ironic provocation.

On a theoretical level, a similar debate takes place between supporters of the so-called deliberative (Jürgen Habermas) and agonistic (Chantal Mouffe) politics. Deliberative politics is based on rational criticism. All relevant arguments should be included in the discussion, and the relevance of the arguments should also be critically debated. Arguments can be criticized by questioning their truth and normative rightness, and the truthfulness (sincerity) of the arguer can also be criticized rationally.

Of course, criticism is a process and the outcomes are, in many ways, distorted. However, the deliberative view insists that the ideal of rationality is needed for solid criticism and democracy.

The agonistic (or constructionist) view on politics seems to deny the epistemic grounds of rational reasoning. Rationality is a rhetoric figure in the use of power. Politics is about different values and identities, and it is not possible to rationally say which opinions, values and identities are more true or right than others. What is essential in politics is disagreement, which can never be settled. People have their own truth, as exemplified in Press Club’s parody.

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Professional journalism, in its ethos, largely subscribes to the idea of rational deliberative politics. It checks the facts if there is suspicion of their veracity, and it tries to bring out the different viewpoints related to the issues at hand. But journalism is not perfect. It may be cynical regarding the extent to which politics itself is rational or deliberative, and it may exaggerate political conflicts and scandals.

Journalists may also hesitate to challenge dominant beliefs because collecting the evidence might be too arduous. Alternatively, an individual journalist may want to avoid the hassle created by this type of challenge.

Regardless of these shortcomings, journalism still represents the ideals of rational public debate and deliberation. In the midst of clearly propagandist and misleading information in the Internet, people seem to have recognized the value of professional journalistic effort. In a recent survey by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle), the share of those trusting in Yle news increased from last year’s 88% to 92%. For the biggest daily, Helsingin Sanomat, the share increased from 64% to 72%.*

It seems that agonistic politics is not enough for citizens. Rational argumentation and the deliberative search for common good is striking back.

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* http://yle.fi/uutiset/luottamus_ylen_uutisiin_ennatyskorkealla/8473679