Fact, Voice, Blogs and the Times

Debate within the New York Times over longstanding distinctions between editorial opinion and journalistic reporting prompt reflection upon two parallel issues: (1) do blog readers prefer opinion to reporting and (2) do academic bloggers maintain distinctions like that and distinctions between scholarly presentation and essayistic voice?

Clark Hoyt, Public Editor at the Times, wrote in Sunday’s paper about business journalists/columnists both reporting stories and expressing prescriptive opinions on them. He instanced recent cases, including Joe Nocera and Andrew Ross Sorokin (both covering General Motors and opining strongly on whether bankruptcy versus federal financial support is the better policy) and Gretchen Morgenson (covering Congressional hearings on credit rating agencies and separately opining on the credibility of the agency witnesses).

Those writers, along with the paper’s editors, say they are evaluating applicable policies concerning the division between reporting and opinion. But, in general, all seem to suggest that there is little or nothing wrong with reporters also expressing opinions. They do recognize the importance of clearly distinguishing when one is reporting versus opining. An example of a policy they would support is that writers could not publish a news story and an opinion column on the same subject the same day.

Mr. Hoyt, essentially the public’s watchdog at the paper, expresses more serious reservations. He sees a profound problem of blurring the lines between news and opinion at the paper. The current business section’s activities are a continuing manifestation of a practice that puts the paper’s credibility at risk, he worries.

Mr. Hoyt says he prefers drawing and maintaining the distinction sharply. He would eliminate first-person opinion by reporters entirely. He laments that this result is unlikely, for two reasons. First, economic pressure on newspapers may require having employees capable of providing both reporting and opinion. Second, Mr. Hoyt cites: “the Internet, which puts a premium on opinion and voice.”

The Internet, by which one may infer a reference generally to blogging, does seem to do that. Should it? Should writers clearly distinguish between fact and opinion? Does it matter whether the topic is business news and policy compared to other subjects?

Do readers, especially concerning business issues, prefer opinion and voice to objective reporting that includes probing alternative ways to evaluate complex issues? Do bloggers, in general or at all, seek to maintain such a distinction, blur it, or obliterate it?

Analogously, how do professorial bloggers separate traditional notions of academic inquiry and scholarly objectivity from opinion, views, and other prescriptions not based on traditional styles of inquiry, exposition, and assessment?

In my opinion, as a blog writer, maintaining such distinctions are important. In fact, it may be difficult to do.

As a blog reader, I’d love to hear other opinions—along with fact-based assessments of them.

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19 Responses

  1. There’s a simple way to maintain “academic integrity and scholarly objectivity.” Don’t make claims that aren’t true.

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Of course distinctions between subjectivity and objectivity, facts and values, description and prescription (or normativity) and so on are important, but they are far from absolute or hard and fast, much in the manner recent philosophical ruminations on the emotions remind us of their indispensable role in reasoning (e.g., Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, 2001; cf. too Peter Goldie’s analysis of the ‘intelligibility, appropriateness, and proportionality’ of emotions), such that we no longer simply view “the passions” in opposition to the virtues of (disapassionate) reason (which is not to deny the occurrence: the Stoics remain on target here). In like manner, empathy is coming back into focus in the social sciences and folk psychological narratives or “theory” of mind (cf. Karsten R. Stueber’s Rediscovering Empathy: Agency, Folk Psychology and the Human Sciences, 2006).

    It helps to keep in mind the following from A.E. Singer:

    1. Knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of theories.

    2. Knowledge of theories presupposes knowledge of facts.

    3. Knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of values.

    4. Knowledge of values presupposes knowledge of facts.

    Or we might care to endorse Amartya Sen’s comment that “Fiction is a general method of coming to grips with facts. There is nothing illegitimate in being helped by War and Peace to an understanding of the Napoleonic Wars in Russia, or by Grapes of Wrath to digesting aspects of the Depression”

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    In Reason, Truth and History (1981), Hilary Putnam argued that “every fact is value loaded and every one of our values loads some fact:”

    “*Fact* (or truth) and *rationality* are interdependent notions. A fact is something that it is rational to believe, or, more precisely, the notion of a fact (or a true statement) is an idealization of the notion of a statement that it is rational to believe. ‘Rationally acceptable’ and ‘true’ are notions that take in each other’s wash. And…being rational involves having criteria of *relevance* as well as criteria of rational acceptability, and…all of our values are involved in our criteria of relevance. The decision that a picture of the world is true (or true by our present lights, or ‘as true as anything is’) and *answers the relevant questions* (as well as we are able to answer them) rests on and reveals our total system of value commitments. A being with no values would have not facts either.” (p. 200)

    Putnam proceeds with an exquisite examination of the way in which, at least indirectly, the criteria of relevance involve values, relying on an analysis of the deceptively simple statement, “the cat is on the mat.” (pp. 200-203)

  4. AYY says:

    “The current business section’s activities are a continuing manifestation of a practice that puts the paper’s credibility at risk, he worries.”

    Hah! At risk my foot. The horse left the barn ages ago.

  5. Frank Pasquale says:

    Great questions. My sense is this: everyone has presuppositions and value commitments they bring to the table, either as a journalist or as an academic. In a blog post, you can express those commitments much more openly than you can/should in a work of objective journalism or detached scholarly analysis.

    Ideally, these forms complement one another. The blog post is a place to test out one’s theories on new developments. The blog itself can become a series of interpretations of the news that fit into one’s theory. (I think that my contributions in our “Health Law” archive are an example.)

    But in a scholarly work, one is absolutely committed to finding and addressing the best arguments against one’s own point of view. Similarly, I think that objective journalists have to seek out the voices that most directly undermine their own narrative.

    But some journalists have tended to take this “objectivity” commitment in pathological directions–witness, for instance, the insistence of many outlets on “reporting the controversy” on climate change rather than acknowledging that there is a scientific consensus. Sometimes maintaining a veneer of objectivity requires reporters to give near-equal weight to “sides” in an argument where one is obviously better.

    So I welcome a world where both reporters and academics can get their “priors” on the table in some outlets, then test these considered convictions in other, more reflective genres. I also think that value pluralism is so deep that objective journalism itself may be receding into the past–and that a public sphere of contending ideological voices may more authentically report on controversies than one dominated by a bland middle-of-the-roadism. Here’s a nice commentary:


    “The history of the American press demonstrates a tendency toward . . . professionalization. . . . [In the early 20th century], many newspapers remained committed to the partisan model of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American press, in which editors and publishers viewed themselves as appendages of one or another political power or patronage machine and slanted their news offerings accordingly. (Think of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton battling each other through their competing newspapers while serving in George Washington’s Cabinet.) The twentieth-century model, in which newspapers strive for political independence and attempt to act as referees between competing parties on behalf of what they perceive to be the public interest, was, in Lippmann’s time, in its infancy.”

    Maybe the new partisanship and opinion-expression on blogs is taking us back to the future.

  6. AYY says:

    “some journalists have tended to take this “objectivity” commitment in pathological directions–witness, for instance, the insistence of many outlets on “reporting the controversy” on climate change rather than acknowledging that there is a scientific consensus.”

    The papers I read would lead one to believe that there is a scientific consensus, when it’s pretty clear there isn’t. For example, they didn’t report the incident where the Siberian weather stations mistakenly reported the same temperatures two months in a row, so the data that purportedly showed a great increase in global warming turned out to be false.

  7. TGP says:

    Frank Pasquale gets at several very important points including the common journalistic practice of “balance” where both sides of any argument are to be presented without any context as to whether there is a stronger case for either. One issue is that when we ask reporters for analysis we would need to have people qualified to give it.

    I think this is a big benefit of blogs, especially those containing high profile academics. we know, or have the ability to find out, exactly what makes this person qualified to voice an opinion on an issue, instead of simply reporting the issue. we get into a lot of trouble when we ask unqualified people to report their own analysis of a situation. Pollsters writing narratives about why people are making up their minds a certain way are transmitted into the media when those pollsters really have no idea what changed from day to day, ie zogby.

    what is the writers opinion always needs to be clear. otherwise something that may not be a consensus position or is in fact totally unsubstantiated can be transformed into received wisdom. That is something we need to guard against.

  8. Quidpro says:

    Professor Pasquale regrets the fact that some journalists will not acknowledge the “scientific consensus” on “climate change”. In recent years, as annual tempetures did not continue to rise as predicted by certain computer models, we experienced the subtle semantic shift to “climate change” from “global warming”. The only consensus appears to be political. Fear-mongering cries of pending enviornmental disaster has become a useful tactic to promote collectivist economic programs.

    This rather nicely illustrates the point of the orignal post.

  9. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Quidpro (it’s important you remain anonymous so as not to embarrass yourself),

    By all measures there IS a scientific consensus on global warming, and there is no “subtle semantic shift” afoot as “climate change” has been loosely used as a synonym for the former, and global warming amounts to “climate change.” Meaningful scientifc consensus allows for the possibility that some scientists dissent from the overwhelming majority for historically, on virtually any topic one might investigate in depth, scientists have never been in absolute agreement.

    Scientific facts:

    “Since the second half of the nineteenth century, global temperatures have been unambiguously on the rise. The increase in global average surface temperature, as estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is around 0.75°C (~1.4°F). Twelve of the thirteen years just prior to 2008 rank among the thirteen warmest years on record.

    The scientific evidence for a human fingerprint on this global warming is now overwhelming. Emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, from human activities–most crucually, the burning of fossil fuels, but also agricultural practices, deforestation, and cement production–are the primary drivers, particularly of the rapid warming since the 1970s.

    The greenhouse effect and its intensification by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases are well understood and solidly grounded in basic science. Moreover, we are already seeing the impacts of warming–such troubling changes as the melting of mountain glaciers, the Greenland ice sheet, and polar sea ice; rising and increasingly acidic seas, increasing severity of droughts, heat waves, fires, and hurricanes (the intensity and frequency of extreme events can change substantially with small changes in average conditions); and changes in the lifecycle and ranges of plants and animals.”

    See Michael D. Mastrandrea and Stephen H. Schneider, “The Rising Tide: Time to Adapt to Climate Change,” in The Boston Review, Vol. 33, No. 6 (November/December 2008), available online at http://bostonreview.net/ This is part of a year-long series on resources and climate change.

  10. Quidpro says:

    Professor O’Donnell:

    Are you accusing me of bad faith? I thought I was being humble in using a nom de blog, but (as you have so perceptively discerned) I only wanted to avoid embarassment.

    Since you claim to know me and my motivations better than I know myself, it is not surprising that, from such Olympian heights of intellect, you also know that the debate is over on “global warming” or “climate change” or whatever the politically correct term is presently in vogue.

    Since you have decreed that a scientific consensus exists, it probably would do me no good to remind you of the tempature variations over geologic time (Was it a dangerous increase in CO2 levels that ended the last ice age?), the effect of solar activity and the fact that fluctuating cycles of global tempeture have been the one climate constant. (Didn’t you ever wonder how that certain arctic island came to be named “Greenland”?)

    The doomsday scenarios promulgated by “the scientific consensus” are based on computer generated models of supposed average global tempetures 20, 50 or even 100 years into the future. This is not science. It is circular reasoning in the form of computer models programmed by those who are proclaiming the alleged scientific consensus. Where are the epistomologists when we need them?

    Finally, Professor, I do want to thank you for the citation to the Boston Review article. It rather nicely illustrates my point. The authors claim a consensus, without offering any supporting evidence, so they can promote their collectivist schemes. They even manage to evoke the theme of “distributive justice”. How cool (I could not resist the pun) is that?

  11. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    It’s a description of the current state of affairs, not a decree.

    Your putative argument is perfect evidence of a case where traditional epistemology would fall on deaf ears, and we have to call instead upon psychology and social epistemology to explain why some folks are immune to the presentation of scientfic evidence (i.e., that some individuals are constitutionally resistant to persuasion by the means and methods of what counts in our time for scientific rationality) owing to some cognitive and/or affective liability, be it ideological obtuseness, recalcitrance or blindness (seen here in the obsessive fear of ‘collectivist schemes’ and ‘distributive justice’), or perhaps such well-known psychological phenomena as wishful thinking, self-deception or states of denial. In other words, you serve to remind us that the best arguments fall flat in the face of myriad ideologically and psychologically motivated obstacles to the various forms of rational argument and persuasion.

    Fortunately, at least this time ’round, it appears the best and the brightest in our midst are beginning to take action toward toward the assurance of viable if not flourishing environmental and ecological conditions that are absolutely essential for realizing both individual and common good.

  12. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    For the record: I am not a “professor,” although I am an adjunct instructor at a community college (with no ambition whatsoever to be anything more than that).

  13. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    For the record: I am not a “professor,” although I am an adjunct instructor at a community college (with no ambition whatsoever to be anything more than that).

  14. Quidpro says:


    Were I a psychologist, I would claim you were projecting. As you say, some people are “immune to the presentation of scientific evidence”. Whether your condition is caused by “wishful thinking, self-deception or states of denial” I cannot say.

    Do you always accuse people with whom you have political disagreements of suffering from psychological problems? I guess that is easier than giving a rational response.

    Since you have closed your mind to reasoned argumentation, I can only pray that you seek help.

  15. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    In your prayers, thank God you’re not a psychologist.

    As to your question: I’m attempting to account for the fact that some people are immune to the presentation of scientific evidence, that is, why they are closed to rational argument and persuasion, as you appear to be with regard to the evidence for global warming. Thus far, I’ve only been able to come up with ideological and psychological explanations to fit the bill. And, no, as a matter of fact, I don’t “always accuse people with whom [I] have political disagreements of suffering from psychological problems.” If you’ll go back to what I said, you’ll notice that I also cited cognitve liabilities such as “ideological obtuseness, recalcitrance or blindness,” which are problems of ideology, although I admit they are probably grounded in psychological mechanisms. All the same, I will not claim that I’m always free from any of the aforementioned mechanisms. My endeavor to understand those who are not amenable to the many forms of rational argument and persuasion amounts to an attempt to rationally account for phenonmena not explicable in terms of rational argument itself, be it formal logical error(s) or informal fallacy(ies). Understood as such, my endeavor amounts to a rational response: the search for reasons to account for why some people are not liable to persuasion by reason(s).

    All the same, I appreciate your prayers for my benefit.

  16. Quidpro says:


    Thank you.

    And yes I do thank God that I am not a psychologist. Still I wonder why you insist on claiming that I am “immune to the presentation of scientific evidence”. I have considered the “evidence” presented to support the claims of “climate change” and the alleged role of human activity as the primary cause thereof and find such evidence problematic and unpersuasive. I certainly am unpersuaded by such “evidence” that we should embrace the radical demands of some in the enviornmental lobby.

    Is it really your position that those who reach a conclusion different from yours are irrational or suffer from some psychological impairment? Is your position that self-evident?

  17. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    Unfortunately for your position, the vast majority of scientists with expertise on the topic at hand disagree with you. What is more, it will not do to attempt to marginalize this consensus within the scientific community as equivalent to “the radical demands of some in the enviornmental lobby.” Incidentally, the position is not simply “mine,” but that of the aforementioned scientific community. And the remark about “embrac[ing] the radical demands of some in the environmental lobby” is on par with your paranoia concerning “collectivist schemes” and “distributive justice.” Please have the last word, as I need to move on to more productive activities.

  18. Quidpro says:


    Your position is clear. For you, and your allies, it is easier to declare the debate “over” rather than engage in a rational exchange. For you, the future is already decided and those who disagree with your deterministic worldview are “paranoid”.

    By all means move on.

  19. AYY says:

    Patrick, You might have overplayed your hand:

    “Study: Half of warming due to Sun! –Sea Levels Fail to Rise? – Warming Fears in ‘Dustbin of History’

    POZNAN, Poland – The UN global warming conference currently underway in Poland is about to face a serious challenge from over 650 dissenting scientists from around the globe who are criticizing the climate claims made by the UN IPCC and former Vice President Al Gore. Set for release this week, a newly updated U.S. Senate Minority Report features the dissenting voices of over 650 international scientists, many current and former UN IPCC scientists, who have now turned against the UN. The report has added about 250 scientists (and growing) in 2008 to the over 400 scientists who spoke out in 2007. The over 650 dissenting scientists are more than 12 times the number of UN scientists (52) who authored the media hyped IPCC 2007 Summary for Policymakers.

    The U.S. Senate report is the latest evidence of the growing groundswell of scientific opposition rising to challenge the UN and Gore. Scientific meetings are now being dominated by a growing number of skeptical scientists. The prestigious International Geological Congress, dubbed the geologists’ equivalent of the Olympic Games, was held in Norway in August 2008 and prominently featured the voices and views of scientists skeptical of man-made global warming fears. [See Full report Here: & See: Skeptical scientists overwhelm conference: ‘2/3 of presenters and question-askers were hostile to, even dismissive of, the UN IPCC’ ]

    Full Senate Report Set To Be Released in the Next 24 Hours – Stay Tuned…

    A hint of what the upcoming report contains:

    “I am a skeptic…Global warming has become a new religion.” – Nobel Prize Winner for Physics, Ivar Giaever.

    “Since I am no longer affiliated with any organization nor receiving any funding, I can speak quite frankly….As a scientist I remain skeptical.” – Atmospheric Scientist Dr. Joanne Simpson, the first woman in the world to receive a PhD in meteorology and formerly of NASA who has authored more than 190 studies and has been called “among the most preeminent scientists of the last 100 years.”

    Warming fears are the “worst scientific scandal in the history…When people come to know what the truth is, they will feel deceived by science and scientists.” – UN IPCC Japanese Scientist Dr. Kiminori Itoh, an award-winning PhD environmental physical chemist.

    “The IPCC has actually become a closed circuit; it doesn’t listen to others. It doesn’t have open minds… I am really amazed that the Nobel Peace Prize has been given on scientifically incorrect conclusions by people who are not geologists,” – Indian geologist Dr. Arun D. Ahluwalia at Punjab University and a board member of the UN-supported International Year of the Planet.

    “The models and forecasts of the UN IPCC “are incorrect because they only are based on mathematical models and presented results at scenarios that do not include, for example, solar activity.” – Victor Manuel Velasco Herrera, a researcher at the Institute of Geophysics of the National Autonomous University of Mexico

    “It is a blatant lie put forth in the media that makes it seem there is only a fringe of scientists who don’t buy into anthropogenic global warming.” – U.S Government Atmospheric Scientist Stanley B. Goldenberg of the Hurricane Research Division of NOAA.

    “Even doubling or tripling the amount of carbon dioxide will virtually have little impact, as water vapour and water condensed on particles as clouds dominate the worldwide scene and always will.” – . Geoffrey G. Duffy, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering of the University of Auckland, NZ.

    “After reading [UN IPCC chairman] Pachauri’s asinine comment [comparing skeptics to] Flat Earthers, it’s hard to remain quiet.” – Climate statistician Dr. William M. Briggs, who specializes in the statistics of forecast evaluation, serves on the American Meteorological Society’s Probability and Statistics Committee and is an Associate Editor of Monthly Weather Review.

    “For how many years must the planet cool before we begin to understand that the planet is not warming? For how many years must cooling go on?” – Geologist Dr. David Gee the chairman of the science committee of the 2008 International Geological Congress who has authored 130 plus peer reviewed papers, and is currently at Uppsala University in Sweden.

    “Gore prompted me to start delving into the science again and I quickly found myself solidly in the skeptic camp…Climate models can at best be useful for explaining climate changes after the fact.” – Meteorologist Hajo Smit of Holland, who reversed his belief in man-made warming to become a skeptic, is a former member of the Dutch UN IPCC committee.

    “Many [scientists] are now searching for a way to back out quietly (from promoting warming fears), without having their professional careers ruined.” – Atmospheric physicist James A. Peden, formerly of the Space Research and Coordination Center in Pittsburgh.”