Critical Thinking in Journalism: An Introduction


In an essay defending his idea to create the first journalism school in history at Columbia University in New York, Joseph Pulitzer wrote “They object, the critics and cavillers, that a 'newspaper man' must depend solely upon natural aptitude, or, in the common phrase, that he must be 'born, not made.'” (Pulitzer, 1904:642). The man some refer to as the father of journalism went on to state that “the only position that occurs to me which a man in our Republic can successfully fill by the simple fact of birth is that of an idiot.” (Pulitzer, 1904:642).

When looking at recent key rulings on journalism, it seems the century-old debate as to whether good journalism stems from education or a “natural aptitude” is still relevant. Since Pulitzer, journalism has grown to be regarded as a profession, like that of a lawyer or doctor. Still, journalism is not regulated by any binding code of conduct. Yet in Grant v. Torstar Corp., the courts have established the defence of responsible communication on matters of public interest. The defence “shifts the focus away from what was published or broadcast (...) and places it squarely on the conduct of the reporters and editors who produced the story.” (Jobb, 2009). It gives judges a series of factors to take into account in their ruling on cases of defamation.

As Jobb explains, the defence looks at the “conduct” of reporters. It comes as a relief to some journalists. But it also comes with a considerable number of responsibilities and disciplines associated with their “conduct.” With this new emphasis, this essay looks at the critical thinking journalists need to exercise in order to live up to the new defence of responsible communication on matters of public interest. The concept of critical thinking has been widely explored in sociology and educational literature. In journalism, it is still very vague and subjective, but it is practised every day. This essay does not claim to comprehensively describe the nature of critical thinking at large, but looks specifically at the critical thinking and reflection involved in a journalist’s information-gathering process. But first, here's a quick review of the concept of critical thinking.

WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF CRITICAL THINKING?

Finding a proper definition of “critical thinking” seems to have kept scholars busy for decades (Baker, 1981:357, Geersten 2003). After their own review of the literature on critical thinking, Grauerholz and Bouma-Holtrop (2003) concluded “the concept has been overused and imprecisely defined” (p. 485), before the authors set out to define it themselves. In a rather simplistic way, Richard Paul of the Critical Thinking Community - Foundation for Critical Thinking defines it as “thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better” (Paul, 1992). Nelson (1999:175, cited in Geertsen) emphasized the professional components of critical thinking in his definition: “the development of deep professional competence and sophisticated ethical judgment.”

John Dewey is said to be one of the leading scholars on the topic of critical thinking. Following Dewey’s conclusions, Geertsen suggests critical thinking is in fact part of “higher-level thinking," which he defined as "a disciplined, systematic way of using the mind to confirm existing information or to search for new information using various degrees of abstraction. The confirmation of existing information is the critical side of higher-level thinking, whereas the search for new information is the reflective side of higher-level thinking.” (Geertsen, 2003:4).

Geertsen provides a definition that separates the methodology from the reflection in information gathering. Hence, his definition is arguably applicable for journalists. His assertions on critical and reflective, or “higher-level thinking,” will be further explored in the second part of this entry.

Under the Grant v. Torstar Corp. ruling, courts are expected to look at the methodology behind the publication. They seek to answer factors such as “whether the defamatory statement’s public interest lay in the fact that it was made rather than its truth,” or look into “the status and reliability of the source” and the “public importance of the matter.” (Jobb, 2009) These matters are loaded with ethical questions that cannot be answered definitively by polls or scientific research. As abstract and undefined as they are by nature, reflection and critical thinking are probably the most important forms of guidance when it comes to good journalism.

RELEVANCE OF THE ELEMENTS OF CRITICAL THINKING FOR JOURNALISM

Back in 1954, Ansel Gray called for a journalism course as part of American high schools’ curriculum. He was clear that most students would probably pick the course for the credits that come with it, or because it fits their schedule better, and that perhaps one out of five students would go on to become a journalist. But Gray believed that the course would also teach the students “how to read a newspaper,” taking into account the “forces” behind its content (Gray, 1954:441). In 2010, with bloggers and citizen-journalists, such a course could effectively raise the level of critical thinking exercised bynews consumers.

The factors Gray would include in the course outline revolved around newspaper ownership, public opinion, ethics, personal interest, etc. At the top of the list: “consideration of the newspaper as neither a business nor a profession, but as a hybrid of the two, and of the difficulties in trying to compromise the commercialism of the one with the spirit of public service of the other” (Gray, 1954:440).

The critical and reflective thinking that go beyond the journalist’s everyday duty of reporting is well illustrated here. The journalist deals with different forces, such as ownership and expectancies of the news organization he or she is serving. Furthermore, the reporter is the eyes and the voice of the issue. He or she comes in between the facts and the outcome. A journalist may be described as at the service of the news, and not the other way around. But when reflecting on subjectivity in the news, subjective assertions may be considered admissible in news items if they come as a result of critical thinking. What’s important is to guide this critical thinking so the reader is not deceived by the journalist who, in the end, is serving the news and the facts.

Hence, Gray’s considerations also apply to the reporter whose stories should reflect the issues the reader is dealing with. When a reporter presents the facts, there is an incredible amount of reflection that goes on behind the scene.

Geertsen divides this reflection or “higher-level thinking” in two categories: “Critical Thinking” and “Reflective Thinking.” These two categories are explored in six dimensions, opposing one level of critical thinking to its reflective thinking counter-part. For instance, decision making is a type of critical thinking under the “strategic thinking” dimension. Its reflective thinking counterpart is: “problem solving.” The table below is an excerpt of Geertsen’s original table to illustrate the reasoning explained above:

Dimension
CATEGORIES of thinking

CRITICAL thinking
REFLECTIVE thinking
Strategic thinking
Decision making
Problem solving
Assessment thinking
Critical Judging
Dimensionalized Judging
( Geertsen, 2003, p. 10.)

The elements of critical thinking involved in reporting are found between the critical and reflective thinking highlighted by Geertsen. The journalist is not a decision-maker, nor is he actually solving the problem. He or she must find a way to inform the decision maker on ways to solve the problems, with their respective advantages and inconveniences. And in a democratic society, the decision-maker is ultimately, in theory, the citizen, whereas the entity that solves the problem is the elected official or the group of elected officials.

The critical thinking involved in the discipline of verification in news and current affairs reporting will be looked at with reference to three different elements of news gathering: public interest, sources, conflict of interest and intuition.

1. Public interest

“A publisher, for instance, with true civic pride, integrity, and the welfare of his fellow citizens at heart can be a tremendous force in keeping city government clean, but an indifferent publisher who is afraid to attack corruption in city government lest he lose money leaves his community wide open for gamblers and venal politicians” (Gray, 1954:441)

In testing his sociology students, Baker targets two fundamental cognitive skills: “(1) the ability to assess the adequacy of others' statements about social reality, (2) the ability to create logically sound statements about social reality. Mastery of these generic skills allows students (...) to examine sociology critically by comparing its truth claims with those of common sense and journalism. (Baker, 1994:358)”

Hence, Baker seeks to determine public perception and a response to it.

Similarly, the first question a journalist asks when approaching a story is “is this a matter of public interest?” But the public interest matter is probably the most abstract concept of responsible communication in the public interest defence. It is bound by what constitutes a private matter and what constitutes harm to a person's reputation, which constitutes another highly abstract concept in itself. To a certain extent, public interest can be measured by polls, pending on the source of the poll. Nowadays, a news organization can also look at the number of “clicks” a story generates on its website to address its popularity.

In their “clues for discovering descriptive assumptions”, Browne and Keeley may have established helpful guidelines to determine what is of public interest, regardless of its boundaries. The authors note that the “thinker” should (among other clues) “look for ideas that support reasons, recognize the potential existence of other means of attaining the advantages referred to in the reasons, and learn more about the issues.”

These “clues” relate with some of the guidelines established in the Grant v. Torstar Corp. For instance, “the potential existence of other means of attaining the advantages referred to in the reasons” can be interpreted as a call to look at different sides of the story, even if the conclusion is the same. This reflects somehow the “seriousness of the allegation: The more serious and damaging the allegation, the more diligence the media will have to show in researching and verifying the story.” (Jobb, 2009).

Quite often, journalists are presented with matters that initially come across as crucial to the public. Yet, thinking critically about the information, piece by piece, can lead a journalist to realize that the story is not as important to the public or should be presented in another matter to better reflect the issue.

A lot of the coverage surrounding compensation on Wall Street in the U.S. is a great example of that. Often, government bank bailouts were linked to banker bonuses in the midst of the recession, almost as if the White House was deliberately paying massive bonuses for the sake of making bankers happy. The issue is far broader than that and far more interesting (and for some, even more frustrating!) when one looks at the ethics and competitive factors that go behind the bonuses on Wall Street and the reasons that led to the bailout. Yet, too often, Main Street was left thinking it was simply being ripped off by Wall Street. As Geertsen notes, “decision-based thinking may work well for routine situations, but ambiguous situations require a different set of operations appropriate for solving ill-structured problems.” (Geertsen, 2003:12) The recession is, to say the least, an “ambiguous situation.”

2. Sources

“Evaluation of evidence entails identifying the source or sources of evidence, as well as considering its quality (internal consistency, generalizability).” (Karraker, p. 314)
In October, 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada emphasized the importance of respecting the confidentiality of sources in the news business when such an arrangement is taken. (Globe and Mail v. Canada, 2010 SCC 41) As the Globe's editorial put it, “the court has in effect given the organized news media the tools to do investigative journalism in the public interest.”

For journalists and the public, this ruling was crucial and a great advancement of free speech. But in dealing with sources, journalists also need to refer to the Grant v. Torstar Corp. ruling. It takes into account the fact that sources almost always have an axe to grind. In the ruling, the journalist is being held responsible to evaluate the reliability and validity of the sources.

Hence, there is an underestimated amount of risk when a journalist takes information from a source, let alone a confidential one or a whistle-blower. Tuchman suggests that “the correct handling of a story, that is, the use of certain procedures discernible to the news consumer, protects the newspaperman from the risks of his trade, including critics.” (Tuchman, 1974:661) By handling, Tuchman refers to the sources and the relationships with them.

Let’s look at another set of Browne and Keeley’s clues for Discovering Descriptive Assumptions (p. 79). One clue calls the thinker to identify with the writer or speaker, as well as the opposition. For instance:

“When an executive for a coal company argues that strip mining does not significantly harm the beauty of our natural environment, he has probably begun with a belief that strip mining is beneficial to our nation. Thus, he may assume a definition of beauty that would be consistent with his arguments, while other definitions of beauty would lead to a condemnation of strip mining.” (p. 79)

Here, Browne and Keeley invite the subject to look beyond the simple assumptions and to enter the source’s state of mind. It can easily be assumed that the individual who gets a financial benefit from a particular situation is solely money-driven and blind to the counter-arguments. Yet another story can come out of these counter-arguments, such as the sources’ background, or his or her axe to grind. In order to assess a story diligently, the journalist shouldn’t discriminate against one side of the story. Instead, the journalist should list the arguments and counter arguments as fallacies, and expose the divergent conclusions that each set of fallacies generate.

3. Conflicts of interest and intuition


“...It is also necessary to know what one does not see in the paper - in other words, to be able to read between the lines and to know what forces are involved in the making of a story.” (Gray, 1954:441)

A reporter’s self-evaluation is probably the deepest and most difficult exercise of critical thinking. Yet, it is probably the most important one, as it counters the worst and most devastating element of bad journalism: malice. Even outside of its legal implications, malice is a mindset that drives the reporter to tell the story in a certain way, without letting the facts to guide the story.

One definition proposed by Dorn (cited in Grauerholz and Bouma-Holtrop, 2003:486) suggests that: “... critical thinking involves micro-level intellectual abilities and skills, such as the ability to clarify issues and identify value assumptions; macro-level dispositions, such as a predisposition to ask for evidence or to be creative; and macro-level values, such as a commitment to fairness.”

Hence, the evaluation of personal biases is a key to good journalism and goes beyond economical factors and perceptions of conflict of interests. It applies to the vocabulary we use and the way we treat the story by instinct.

The way we treat our intuition as journalists is also quite tricky. It can help us treat our sources better. But it can also lead us to a one-tracked story. Geertsen reiterates the importance of the attitude of the critical thinking, inserting three key elements: open-mindedness, evidence-mindedness, persistent-mindedness. “With the proper attitude, we make use of the current knowledge at hand while leaving the door open to new evidence and insight.” (Geertsen, 2003:5-6).

A journalist, then, should not be an outcast of society, but rather an engaged individual who is capable to “feel more deeply and think more clearly.”

CONCLUSION

To sum up, critical thinking is mostly studied for educational purposes. Scholars have sought to improve the notion of critical thinking and its applications in schools, colleges and university in order to generate a nation of critical thinkers. Yet, Baker notes that “there are a wide range of tests in sociological studies based on newspaper excerpts (Baker, 1981:357).” If journalism is the voice of society, it doesn’t need empirical evidence to demonstrate its importance in society. The courts in Canada have repeatedly done so, recently acknowledging that investigative journalism fills a democratic gap in society.

When Gray argued for a journalism course to be included in high schools in the U.S., he implicitly highlighted the educational function that journalism serves in a nation: “All students of the journalism class will gain, to a greater or lesser degree, this insight, which automatically makes them better citizens because it makes them thinking and better informed citizens.” (Gray, 1954:441). That puts a lot of pressure on journalists! Hence, by nature, journalism serves an important educational purpose that should be dictated by critical thinking, but that should also generate critical thinking among its reader. Journalists must exercise their trade in adherence to the highest standards of responsibility. As Pulitzer puts it: “He must have the critical faculty, for all newspaper work involves criticism and analysis. The journalist criticises everything under the sun; his eye is always at the mental microscope and his hand on the dissecting-knife.” (Pulitzer, 1904:664). Or put it this way: a news consumer should feel better informed after reading a newspaper or watching a newscast. But in many cases, the news items should also leave the consumer wondering and debating issues, as opposed to be drawn to a specific conclusion.

As seen in this entry, critical thinking has high implications for journalism, especially in the context of verification and the new defence of responsible communication on matters of public interest. In light of critical thinking’s implications in front of the Canadian courts, I would conclude that its definition that is most relevant to journalism would be that of Richard Paul: “thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better” (Paul, 1992). Or put even more simply, “think outside the box.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books
Author, A. A. (Year of publication). Title of work: Capital letter also for subtitle. Location: Publisher.
Browne, N. And S. Keeley. (2007). Asking the Right Questions, A Guide to Critical Thinking, 8th Ed. New Jersey, U. S.: Pearson - Prentice Hall.
Copi, I. M. And C. Cohen. (2005). Introduction to Logic - 12th ed. New Jersey, U.S.: Pearson – Prentice Hall.
Paul, R. W. And L. Elder. (2002). Critical Thinking: Tools for your Professional and Personal Life, New Jersey, U. S.: Pearson - Prentice Hall.

Peer-reviewed journal articles
Baker, Paul J. (1981). Learning Sociology and Assessing Critical Thinking, Knowledge Available, Knowledge Needed: Improving Sociology Instruction, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 325-363
Fisher, Alec and Scriven, Michael. (1997) Critical Thinking: Its Definition and Assessment, Center for Research in Critical Thinking (UK)/Edgepress
Geersten, H. Reed. (2003). Rethinking Thinking about Higher-Level Thinking, Teaching Sociology, Vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 1-19
Grauerholz, L. and Bouma-Holtrop, S. (2003). Exploring Critical Sociological Thinking, Teaching Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 485-496
Gray, A. (1954). A Broader Approach to Journalism, The English Journal, vol. 43, no. 8, pp. 439-441
Lewis, J. (1991). Redefining Critical Reading for College Critical Thinking Courses, Journal of Reading, vol. 34, no. 6, pp. 420-423
Pulitzer, J. (1904). The College of Journalism, The North American Review, Vol. 178, No. 570, pp. 641-680
Strauss, M. (1994). Juror Journalism, Yale Law & Policy Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 389-423
Tuchman, G. (1972), Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen's Notions of Objectivity, The American Journal of Sociology Vol. 77, No. 4 pp. 660-679
Wilkes, M. (1993). Mock Trials and Critical Thinking, College Teaching, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 134-137

Court rulings
Globe and Mail v. Canada (Attorney General), 2010 SCC 41
Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61
WIC Radio Ltd. v. Simpson, 2008 SCC 40, [2008] 2 S.C.R. 420

Periodicals
Author, A. A., & Author, B. B. (Date of publication). Title of article. Title of Online Periodical, volume number (issue number if available). Retrieved from http://www.someaddress.com/full/url/
Globe Editorial (October 22, 2010). Standing up for newshounds. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/editorials/standing-up-for-newshounds/article1769612/
Jobb, D. (December 23, 2009). The responsible communication defence: What's in it for journalists? The Canadian Journalism Project: J-Source. Retrieved from http://www.j-source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=4625

Others/Websites
Author, A. A., & Author, B. B. (Date of publication). Title of document. Retrieved from http://Web address
Maxwell, M. (2009). Introduction to the Socratic Method and its Effect on Critical Thinking. Retrieved from http://www.socraticmethod.net/
Paul, Dr. Richard; Elder, Dr. Linda. (2006). The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools. Dillon Beach: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 8 pgs.
The Foundation for Critical Thinking (April 1992). Critical Thinking: Basic Questions & Answers, Retrieved from http://www.criticalthinking.org/aboutCT/CTquestionsAnswers.cfm