Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Democracy (Page 1 of 9)

The precarious role of social norms in journalism

In this post, Lisa Herzog discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the role of shared norms in journalism.


Imagine that you’re competing fiercely with someone – but there are no legal rules to keep the competition fair! All that you and the other competitors can hope for is that all of you will stick to certain norms of fairness. This hardly sounds like a comfortable situation. Yet, it is, arguably, the situation news outlets currently find themselves in. Such concerns motivate my recent paper, where I argue that we need to consider the role of competition for journalism ethics, not least because this helps understand the precarious role of social norms in journalism.

“Chasing the clicks”

In the online world, media outlets face stiff competition, not only with one another, but also with cat videos, social networks and other online content. While they experiment with different business models (with or without paywalls, with or without subscriptions or donations, etc.), they ultimately all need to attract sufficient numbers of viewers. But think about the ways in which human attention in an online environment functions: the briefer, the crasser, the flashier an item, the more likely it is to get attention. Hence, it is tempting for news outlets to prioritize sensationalist headlines over serious reporting. And because one’s competitors will do the same, there is a risk that more and more news outlets move in this direction. The consequences for the kind of sober, truth-oriented journalism that democracies so urgently need look dire.

To illustrate this point, consider the downward spiral of the harms that can be done when news outlets “frame” their pieces in more and more sensationalist ways. Such frames often draw on harmful (e.g., racist or sexist) stereotypes, and they often reinforce the competitive nature of politics over the search for compromise. Moreover, they dull the attention of audiences: they make everything a scandal, so that truly outrageous news, such as the abuse of political office, are more difficult to recognize as such. And lastly, sensationalist framing can overshadow the framing of political issues by political parties, replacing a logic of democratic competition with a logic of market competition.

An “ethics of competition” in journalism?

Journalism ethics has long discussed the responsibilities of journalists and the imperative not to abuse their power over public discourse. There are many norms that are meant to prevent specific harms, e.g., about how to report about suicides. But when it comes to collective harms – such as the lowering of journalistic standards – traditional journalism ethics has relatively little to say. Here it is useful to draw on concepts and arguments from business ethics. After all, a core question of business ethics is how to maintain ethical standards when agents stand in competition with one another.

When competitive pressures in markets lead to harmful collective outcomes in markets, often the best option is regulation, which creates a level playing field for all competitors. This is why we need minimum wage legislation, health and safety standards, and environmental rules. But here’s the catch: when it comes to the media, many forms of regulation would be rather problematic. They would run up against the freedom of the press, and therefore rightly raise worries about censorship. After all, a key function of the media in democracies is to fulfil a watchdog function vis-à-vis political actors. So to regulate news outlets for civility is a potentially dangerous idea.

Joseph Heath has argued that in market situations in which legal regulation cannot secure efficient outcomes, market participants themselves should ensure that no ethical abuses happen. Similarly, one might argue that individual journalists and media companies should stick to a voluntary “ethics of sportsmanship”: compete hard but compete fairly! Whether or not such a strategy can be successful, however, depends quite massively on the audience. To put it metaphorically: if the audience cheers for fouls instead of booing them, then news outlets that try to play fair will have a hard time staying in business.

Social norms and their risks

So, are there other ways to support journalistic standards in the face of the stiff competition of the online world? One factor that can help to stabilize standards in the face of competition are social norms, as we do in fact find them in many sports: norms that individuals accept as part of their professional identity and that are supported by peer recognition. Doesn’t that seem like a good candidate for journalism as well? Yes and no. On the one hand, social norms can be a powerful counterweight to competitive pressures. On the other hand, whenever one speaks of “social norms,” those familiar with debates about free speech will remember John Stuart Mill’s powerful warnings against vigilantism and self-censorship. Journalism needs mavericks, and social norms can easily stifle the kind of vivid debate in the media that democracies need.

This precarious role of social norms within journalism can explain some of the vicious debates about “political correctness” in the media. Being politically incorrect can be a cheap way of attracting attention, getting a head start over competitors, without taking into account the harm one thereby does – or so the defenders of political correctness hold. If the social norms around political correctness become too strict, this can stifle valuable forms of debate – or so its critics say.

If my arguments are correct, then this is exactly the line of contestation we can expect, given the situation of journalists (and players in the attention economy more broadly speaking) in the fierce online competition they currently face. And we cannot expect a once-and-for-all solution. Instead, democracies need an ongoing, reflective debate about journalistic standards and social norms in the media and in public discourse. This is burdensome, but it’s a price worth paying for the absence of legal regulation and the presence of competitive dynamics. Remaining aware of its necessity can maybe help to lead these debates in less vitriolic ways.

The case for an independent environmental agency

In recent decades, Western democracies have seen a trend towards the use of independent agencies (IAs) to insulate certain policy issues from direct political influence. Of course, such delegations can be revoked, but they do put the decisions in question at arm’s length from elected representatives for the time being.

Given the emphasis on the accountability of elected representatives in a democracy, how can one justify such instances of delegation? Advocates of IAs claim that they will do a better job at attaining the policy objectives in question. In particular, this will be the case in policy areas where governments face commitments problems that will prevent them from adopting optimal policies.

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How democratic are pre-election polls?

In most Western democracies nowadays, pre-election periods are littered with polls. Some polls, conducted by polling organizations, are sophisticated and more likely to be challenged for their accuracy (as are the media houses that publish them). Other polls are simple. For instance, a news website may ask its readers who they would vote for if the election happened on that day. Polls represent a simple and cheap commodity for the commercial news media to offer to their audiences. As Jesper Strömbäck notes, polls generate fresh and often dramatic news items that are easy to analyze for journalists and easy to digest for audiences.

But how do polls, and particularly pre-election polls, fit into a normative vision of democracy? Do they enrich our democratic practices and institutions, or do they undercut democratic ideals? Despite being an epitome for divisive issues (49% of countries restrict the publishing of pre-election polls in some capacity, as Petersen notes), pre-election polls have attracted little interest of democratic theorists. Reaching a verdict on whether they are normatively compatible with democracy has been left almost entirely to political scientists and journalists.

On the face of it, pre-election polls have a positive case going for them:

  • First, as long as their integrity is not in question, publishing pre-election polls in liberal democracies could be seen simply as what freedoms of the press and expression require.
  • Second, pre-election polls provide voters with factual information that is seemingly relevant for reaching a decision on how to cast the vote.
  • Third, the publishing of pre-election polls, assuming that they significantly deviate from electoral results, can help indicate whether an election has been tampered with.

Democratic theorists have their work cut out for them to discuss the strength of these three points. But assume, for the moment, that we grant their initial appeal. If these points spoke decisively in favor of pre-election polls, then deciding whether polls are democratic or not would hinge on how accurately they predict outcomes. It is only the publishing of accurate information that would be non-controversially protected under press freedom, contribute to informed voting, or reliably signal election tampering. And matters of polling accuracy are exactly the direction in which much of political science and journalistic takes on pre-election polls have steered the discussion. Insofar, our greatest fears about polls would be whether they are conducted poorly, or rigged.

On second thoughts, however, it doesn’t seem that polling accuracy should be the whole story of how democratic pre-election polls are. Here are two reasons why.

The first concerns the effects of publishing pre-election polls on voting behavior. How exactly voters will be affected remains inconclusive, despite nearly 50 years of research in the social sciences. For instance, it is uncertain whether a pre-election poll will bring about the bandwagon effect – causing voters to flock to the winning side – or the underdog effect – causing the exact opposite. Some authors believe these effects may in fact cancel each other out.

But not everything is uncertain about polling effects. Exposure to pre-election polls is sure to make voters more likely to “maximize the utility of their vote in producing a favorable election outcome”, according to Moy and Rinke. This means that if the poll informs the voter that her preferred option is unlikely to succeed, she will opt for a “second-best” or “third-best” option. Not everyone will succumb to this “strategic voting” effect, but those who do will often solidify two-party systems, since strategic voting is more likely to favor strong parties and candidates at the expense of the weak. If true, obstacles to entry become more significant for democratic newcomers, and voters, who have changed their voting preferences but not their political attitudes, may find themselves unrepresented. These effects, as well as voter indifference, which may be caused if polls project a significant margin between candidates, are all arguably undesirable occurrences in a democracy.

The second democratic worry about pre-election polls concerns the kind of information that these polls provide and how it affects voters. Many authors have linked the media coverage of polls with the culture of so-called “horse race journalism.” This kind of media content primarily emphasizes the standing of candidates in the race and their popularity compared to the competition. And since a democratic arena saturated with polls will direct most of the voter’s attention on the horse race, little attention remains to consider important political views and policy proposals. Along similar lines, Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit once argued that polling effects, among other factors, represent “capricious influences” on voting behavior, and that we should come up with institutional pressures to downplay caprice and stimulate the democratic exchange of reasons that precedes voting.

Of course, pre-election polls are not the only driver of strategic voting, or the sole source of horse race journalism. But if they exacerbate these effects, then we should do more to determine whether and how they fit into a desirable vision of democracy. The institutional pressures against their “capricious influences” need not be strict bans, but may be inspired by numerous policy solutions not yet observed in the West.

An Ethical Code for Citizen Science?

Citizen Science is gaining popularity. The term refers to a form of scientific research that is carried out entirely or in part by citizens who are not professional scientists. These citizens contribute to research projects by, for example, reporting observations of plants and birds, by playing computer games or by measuring their own blood sugar level. “Citizen scientists” (also referred to as, for instance, “participants”, “volunteers”, “uncredentialed researchers”, or “community researchers”) can be involved in several ways and at any stage of a research project. They often collect data, for instance about air quality or water quality, and sometimes they are also involved in the analysis of those data. In some cases, citizens initiate and/or lead research projects, but in most of the projects we read about in academic journals, professional scientists take the lead and involve citizens at some stage(s) of the research. Some interpret the rise of citizen science as a development towards the democratisation of science and the empowerment of citizens. In this post, I address some ethical worries regarding citizen science initiatives, relate them to the choice of terminology and raise the question as to whether we need an ethical code for citizen science.

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The news media are a watchdog, but so are you

In this post, Emanuela Ceva & Dorota Mokrosinska discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on what grounds the duty of the news media (and citizens) to act as a watchdog.


The news media often claim a quasi-political role as a watchdog entrusted by the people to keep the government in check. This claim has a particular purchase when it comes to the dissemination of whistleblowers’ unauthorized disclosures. The publication in the Guardian and the Washington Post of Edward Snowden’s revelations of classified information about British and US governments’ surveillance programs provide a textbook illustration of this claim.

Widespread as it is, this view of the unique quasi-political role of the news media is hard to justify. In a recent article, we argue that the watchdog role of the news media does not derive from their special status in society. It is rather an instance of a general duty that accrues to any member of a well-ordered society in the face of institutional failures.

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The harm in fake news

During the last months, an enthralling debate on fake news has been unfolding on the pages of the academic journal Inquiry. Behind opposed barricades, we find the advocates of two arguments, which for the sake of conciseness and simplicity we can sketch as follows:

  1. We should abandon the term ‘fake news’;
  2. We should keep using the term ‘fake news’.

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Propagandists, Degrees of Reliability, and Epistemic Nihilism

Reliability is a quality that comes in degrees. For example, a bus that always arrives exactly on time is highly reliable. A bus that often but not always arrives on time is somewhat reliable. A bus that rarely arrives on time is unreliable. People living in areas with public transit commonly discuss which among the less-than-perfectly-reliable modes of transport available are more or less reliable. In doing so, these people show they understand that reliability comes in degrees. They readily acknowledge that some imperfect modes of transport are more reliable than others.

Propagandists prefer their audiences ignore this level of nuance when assessing sources of information. A propagandist prefers that you perceive the propagandist as totally reliable while perceiving all other sources of information as totally unreliable. If this cannot be achieved, the propagandist would prefer that you view all sources as completely unreliable. At least then your decisions about whose claims to trust will rest on grounds other than the reliability of the source. 

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Intentional (nation-)States: A Group-Agency Problem for the State’s Right to Exclude

In this post, Matthew R. Joseph discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the relationship between collective agency and immigration policy.


It seems intuitively correct – perhaps even obvious – that if we think of the nation-state as the institution of a democratic people, then states have the ‘right to exclude’. That is, states have a moral right to stop would-be immigrants from entering because a self-determining people have the right to decide on their own membership practices. Yet states often act without securing the will of the people, and we do not normally think that this compromises the independence of the citizens. Think, for instance, of decisions like diplomatic appointments, strategic military deployments, or complex fiscal policies. These are all routine decisions that shape the future of the country, but citizens are excluded from the decision-making process.

This is puzzling, because if states can act without being directed by citizens and without compromising self-determination, then self-determination cannot be a claim about states being directed by the will of citizens. If this is correct, then the self-determination justification for the right to exclude is doubtful because self-determination does not require that citizens determine state policies. As I argue in a recent article, this includes immigration policies.

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From the Vault: Journal of Applied Philosophy

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall some of the highlights from our 2019-2020 season. This post focuses on the launch of our collaboration with the Journal of Applied Philosophy.

In 2019-20, Justice Everywhere began a collaboration with the Journal of Applied Philosophy. The journal is a unique forum that publishes philosophical analysis of problems of practical concern, and several of its authors post accessible summaries of their work on Justice Everywhere. These posts draw on diverse theoretical viewpoints and bring them to bear on a broad spectrum of issues, ranging from the environment and immigration to economics, parenting, and punishment.

For a full list of these posts, visit the journal’s author page. For a flavour of the range, you might read:

Stay tuned for even more from this collaboration in our 2020-21 season!

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Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 7th September with fresh weekly posts by our cooperative of regular authors. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

Democracy’s Unpluckable Feathers and Presidential Term Limits

In this guest post, Mark Satta discusses the importance of presidential term limits for democracy, and that popular resistance is crucial in enforcing them.

In her book Fascism: A Warning, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recounts that “Mussolini observed that in seeking to accumulate power it is wise to do so in the manner of one plucking a chicken—feather by feather—so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as muted as possible.” We often think of dictatorships as arising from wars or coups, but Mussolini’s analogy vividly expresses how nations can slip from liberal democracies to illiberal autocracies through a series of small, incremental changes.

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