Journalists and Philosophy


“Why is that philosophy is glaringly absent in Indian newspaper journalism that otherwise seamlessly synthesises ideas from numerous disciplines while discussing a topic?”

That question is raised by Varun S. Bhatta, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopa in a piece at The Wire. The question isn’t confined to journalism in India. He notes: “The non-engagement with philosophy is a characteristic of journalism across the world.”

Though newspapers publish opinion pieces by philosophers, what Bhatta is interested in is the question of why journalists themselves do not bring philosophy into their reporting, as they do with research and ideas from other disciplines. He asks: “Are there any pragmatic constraints of the profession that filter out philosophical ideas? What presumptions of journalists about philosophy are at play here?”

To find out, he asks journalists and news editors. They cite that journalists are largely unfamiliar with philosophy and so don’t think to bring it to bear on the subjects on which they’re reporting. Jargon and perceived abstractness and difficulty are other reasons journalists may be “antagonistic” towards philosophy.

He notes that philosophers may not be thought of as experts, as philosophy is “presumed to study everyday activities and phenomena.”

So philosophy is at once perceived as, on the one hand, specialized, daunting, and irrelevant, and on the other, quotidian and not worth mentioning.

Further, journalism “has gradually come to use social science methods and ideas to make sense of news.” He writes:

Given that humanities is on the periphery of journalism’s coverage radar, philosophy events will hardly be considered newsworthy. More importantly, having evolved to use social sciences techniques, journalism would not be interested in queries for which philosophy can provide answers.

The reasons for this, he notes, may have to do with the education and training journalists get. Philosophy isn’t explicitly covered in most journalism curricula, and few people who study philosophy take up careers in journalism. As one American journalist said in a comment on a different post here: “Candidly, I think most people in my profession don’t understand philosophy”

Bhatta concludes that “For philosophy to eventually be used in mainstream journalism practice, journalists need to become familiar with it.” Suggestions on how to make that happen, and general discussion on the topic of philosophy in journalism, are welcome.

UPDATE: Professor Bhatta shares that one of the journalists he spoke with, Vasudevan Mukunth, has posted their entire exchange on his website, here.


Related: “How Should Philosophers Talk to Journalists?

 

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Chris
Chris
1 month ago

Susanna Siegel has taught a new course on philosophy and journalism. There is also this workshop:
https://philosophy.cass.anu.edu.au/events/philosophy-journalism-workshop

Hermias
Hermias
1 month ago

Interesting topic. Maybe one piece of the puzzle is this. Philosophy is concerned with the eternal. Journalism/“news” is concerned with what’s happening right now. For instance, if your neighbor told you that instead of reading today’s paper they get their papers on a 20 year delay, so that today they were reading the news from March 4 2004, that would be pretty weird, because who cares about ephemera that isn’t the ephemera of now. Once you ascend to the higher ground and interpret news from a philosophical perspective you’re kind of no longer doing news, you’re doing philosophy with lots of examples.

Ian
Ian
Reply to  Hermias
1 month ago

Surely though, if what we’re truly concerned about is the eternal, the eternal has something to say about the ephemeral.

Hermias
Hermias
Reply to  Ian
1 month ago

Yes, but probably not vice versa.

The ontological superior contains the inferior, but not vice versa. “What you do not have, you cannot give to another.”

Patrick Lin
1 month ago

If you’re waiting on journalists to pull philosophy into their stories—which first understanding a bit of philosophy and recognizing its value—you may be waiting for a long time.

Don’t forget that you can also take the initiative here and push philosophy into a story. Yes, that’s also a challenge since it means you need to put in the work to understand journalists, their needs and goals, how to work with them (e.g., speak and write like a normal human being, not an academic), etc., but at least you’re in a position to make it happen, if you care about a story/issue enough.

To paraphrase JFK, the right attitude in media relations is: ask not what the press can do for you, ask what you can do for the press. It’s less productive to wish for a world where everyone, or even just journalists, appreciate philosophy and can connect the dots to current events and modern issues.

Working with the media may be an unfamiliar art to philosophers, but it’s also not rocket surgery. Here’s a good place to start: https://netpress.org/care-feeding-press/

Off the Cuff
Off the Cuff
1 month ago

Keep in mind the pop-positivism that saturates several cultures. As one student put it, there is science, and then there is BS. As some journalists have been trained to say, there is Fact, and then there is Opinion, and philosophers don’t strike many (beyond a few university depts) as being well positioned to opine on anything in particular. We don’t show up on journalists’ radar as relevant experts for anything.

Mike on the internet
Mike on the internet
Reply to  Off the Cuff
1 month ago

Somewhere between, or in the general vicinity of, Fact and Opinion, there is possibility, or conditioned plausibility, or something like that. That is the domain where a lot of philosophy is done. Facts have a value for general audiences because they can be instrumentally useful, and are hard to ascertain by individual consumers. Opinions have value because they engage audience emotions, and having “featured” opinions serves a filtering and sorting function for consumers grappling with a surplus of opinions. Possibilities… well, maybe save that for the Saturday edition. And please do keep it brisk.

David Wallace
1 month ago

The claim that journalists don’t talk to philosophers might depend on sub-field. I talk to journalists reasonably often and I know several other philosophers of science for whom that’s true.

Mike on the internet
Mike on the internet
1 month ago

(These comments are somewhat tangential to the specific points discussed in the full Q&A, especially wrt the Indian and Global North/South dynamics, but are broadly related).

I’ve written about philosophical issues (or philosophical approaches to more general moral and linguistic/conceptual issues) for general-interest platforms, and I’ve attended workshops about how academics can effectively engage popular media to educate and advocate.

The take-away lesson from the latter experience is that you cannot expect (overworked, underpaid and desperately precarious) journalists and editors to invest spare time to familiarize themselves with even the most fundamental elements of a specialized domain. Even those capable of getting their heads around it can scarcely afford the time and attention. Editors in particular do not have the time to massage academic writing (reading level, length, jargon, habits of directness and repetition) into a more readily digestible form.

To get philosophy into journalism, the best route is to train philosophers to be better popular writers, and to be effective at pitching projects to general audience platforms. This is not to say that philosophers are bad popular writers, just that the demands of such writing are not necessarily obvious to people with no training or experience in that task. Editors will be quite happy to publish ready-made pieces that are packaged to appeal to their existing audience, and journalists will be quite happy to follow up on a pitch that already answers the question “Why would my readers care?”. Teaching journalists to think like philosophers, rather than teaching philosophers to write like journalists, is like that asteroid movie where they train miners to be astronauts, rather than training astronauts to drill rocks. (I don’t mean to disparage journalism, which can be a very artful and intellectually demanding profession).

Overall, though, I think this is more of a demand-side problem than a supply-side problem, and would have to be solved through changes to mandatory curricula in primary and secondary education, a domain that has perhaps even less extra money and time than journalism does. The Q&A has a tone (to my ears, at least) of “why don’t these people recognize the great value of philosophy?”, which fails to recognize (1) the great value of philosophy is not even obvious to all philosophers, (2) popular press does not necessarily have goals which are better reached with the help of philosophy, and (3) those parts of philosophy that are helpful may be excised from their philosophical context and taught as mere technique.

Philipp Weißkopf
Philipp Weißkopf
1 month ago

“So philosophy is at once perceived as, on the one hand, specialized, daunting, and irrelevant, and on the other, quotidian and not worth mentioning.”

I’m not sure why this is framed as a contradiction in terms. Why shouldn’t professional, academic philosophy be both niche and obscure on the one hand and dull on the other? It often is in practice, even for specialists.

V. Alan White
1 month ago

The recent Alabama decision on IVF shows just how much philosophers are needed on the most basic moral and ontological issues at work there. Absent that, it just comes down to matters of the power politics of religion versus reason, and the Alabama Chief Justice’s remarks show how that plays out. With the rise of Christian Nationalism, these sorts of controversies need cold and sharp conceptual treatment more than ever.

Per Milam
Per Milam
1 month ago

My experience working in Sweden was that journalists often contact philosophers for their views on current events where those philosophers’ expertise is relevant. Moreover, they sometimes contact a philosopher just to discuss that philosopher’s work because they take it to be of interest.

Maybe this is very different from other countries, but I’d be curious to hear from philosophers in a wide range of places.

Mike on the internet
Mike on the internet
Reply to  Per Milam
1 month ago

I think your intuition is correct, the public visibility and credibility of philosophers differs greatly even between countries with similar levels of development and education. For example, France has a history of pop-star philosophers enabled by that country’s particular relationship to literature as an element of national identity. More randomly, accidents of legal and social history that may thrust a philosopher’s work into popular discussion (for example, Charles Taylor’s work on secularism as applied to Quebec’s restrictions on religious symbols in the public service, or Margaret Somerville’s work on medical ethics as applied to Canada’s medical-assistance-in-dying legislation).

Public Writing
Public Writing
1 month ago

I agree with Patrick that philosophers can take the initiative. If philosophers are interested in writing for the public, then George Gopen’s Sense of “Structure, The: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective” is a good book to guide them.