In your face: The ethics of opinion journalism

Stephen J.A. WardJournalists who add their own fierce opinions to political discourse have every right to do so, writes Stephen J.A. Ward, but it’s “deliberative” commentators who serve a democracy best.

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

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.

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 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, they say, what America needs today.

Is this reasoning plausible? I think not.

Immoderate voices: false assumptions

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

On the contrary, if immoderate forms of opinion dominate public discussion, they can do more harm than good to democracy. That’s why assumptions behind the praise of immoderate journalism need to be challenged.

Here are two such 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

Shortly after the Tucson shooting, Shafer rightly questioned media reports that assumed a link between the shooting and extreme opinion. But he went further in defence of 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 isn’t it needed today? The article exaggerates the value of inflamed rhetoric, and deploys the old bugbear that moderates 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 to discuss 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 others or demonize them.

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

Deliberative commentators approach public discussion in a distinct manner. The aim is not simply to 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 mindset of any rational, fair inquirer, from scientist or 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 Brookes 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 the Sun TV news channel launches, the Canadian public sphere will be best served where its programs practise deliberative opinion journalism, and resist the lure of partisan commentary.

J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the
School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British
Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of
Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of
UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.