Disagreements as a form of knowledge: How journalists address day-to-day conflicts between sources

Disagreements over facts, in which news sources are leading journalists in opposite directions, are an ultimate test of journalists' knowledge, forcing them to develop their own understanding of the actual state of affairs. This study focuses on
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  https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884918825007    Journalism 1  –19© The Author(s) 2019Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissionsDOI: 10.1177/1464884918825007 journals.sagepub.com/home/jou Disagreements as a form of knowledge: How journalists address day-to-day conflicts between sources Zvi Reich* Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel Aviv Barnoy* Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel Abstract Disagreements over facts, in which news sources are leading journalists in opposite directions, are an ultimate test of journalists’ knowledge, forcing them to develop their own understanding of the actual state of affairs. This study focuses on how reporters think, act, and establish knowledge during the coverage of day-to-day disagreements – contrary to former studies, which focused on large-scale scientific and political controversies based on content analysis that narrowed their exposure to the epistemic realities of disagreements. Using a combination of quantitative and qualitative reconstruction interviews we show that rather than eliciting an ‘epistemic paralysis’, as widely expected in the literature, disagreements attract significantly greater knowledge-acquisition energy. Findings support the problem-centered   approach of epistemology and pragmatics that highlight the complexities of disagreements, rather than the adjudication-centered   approach of journalism studies, which push for more journalistic ‘bottom lines’. Maximizing adjudication seems too ambitious and unrealistic for the time frame of daily reporting and the mixed epistemic standards seen in this study. Keywords Adjudication, conflicts, controversy, disagreement, epistemology, ‘he said, she said’,  journalism, knowledge, reporting, risk  *Zvi Reich and Aviv Barnoy contributed equally to this work. Corresponding author: Aviv Barnoy, Department of Communication Studies, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, P.O.B. 653, Beersheba 8410501, Israel. Email: avivbarnoy@gmail.com  JOU   0   0   10.1177/1464884918825007Journalism Reich and Barnoy research-article   2019  Article  2  Journalism 00(0) Introduction People tend to disagree on many things: physical and symbolic resources, interests, ide-ologies, responsibilities, gustatory tastes, and factual states of affairs (Christensen and Lackey, 2013; Dascal, 1998, 2001). When disagreements involve prominent enough peo- ple and institutions, or dramatic enough events, they tend to attract massive media atten-tion. The media lure of disagreements is seen across different subtopics of journalism research, from framing studies to newsworthiness and from verification to spheres of legitimate controversy and deviance and war and peace reporting (Bartholomé et al., 2017; Galtung and Ruge, 1965; Ghincul and Schuck, 2018; Hallin, 1986; Harcup and O’Neill, 2017; Lawrence, 2000; Lynch and Galtung, 2010; Rogan, 2006).However, one major aspect that is constantly overlooked in journalism studies is the nature of disagreements about factual states of affairs as an ultimate test of journalists’ knowledge. Under such circumstances, journalists’ most crucial resource for truth claims – that is, human and technological news sources (Sigal, 1986; Tiffen et al., 2014) – is leading them to a dead end, pointing to opposite, incommensurable, sometimes even contradictory directions (Lawrence, 2000; Pingree, 2011; Pingree et al., 2014; Rosen, 2009; Stocking and Holstein, 2009; Tuchman, 1972). Hence, reporters that don’t make do with the ‘he said, she said’ formula, must develop their own knowledge regarding each party’s claims and evi-dence in order to understand the outline of the disagreement and its roots, not to mention the expectation to determine which party is right. The prevailing approaches to disagreement in journalism studies versus philosophy and pragmatics (a subfield of linguistics and semiotics) are not fully commensurable. While journalistic approaches are adjudication-centered  , that is, expect journalists to determine which party is right (Clarke, 2008; Jamieson and Waldman, 2003; Rosen, 2009) the philosophical and pragmatics approaches are  problem-centered  , that is, high-light the epistemic complexities of disagreements (Christensen and Lackey, 2013; Dascal, 1998, 2001; Georgakopoulou, 2012; Kinzel and Kusch, 2016; Sifianou, 2012). Although philosophy and pragmatics are more descriptive in their approach to disagree-ments while the journalistic approach is more prescriptive – one may infer quite safely that journalism scholars see disagreements as less complex and more solvable, while  philosophy and pragmatics contend that disagreements may be resolved, however – not in the short time window of daily reporting.The main claim of this article is that sweeping expectations of journalism studies for adjudication are exaggerated and unrealistic, especially under the strict constraints of daily news reporting. They may even have detrimental epistemic consequences, if news audiences make wrong choices based on superficial and arbitrary adjudications. To make this point, we use a combination of theoretical insights from philosophy and pragmatics and an empirical study that tries to open the ‘black box’ of day-to-day factual disputes. Findings show how reporters in leading Israeli print and online news organizations think and act when faced with disagreements and under which circumstance they take pains to adjudicate which party is closer to the truth.The article focuses on knowledge-related disagreements between news sources, either around the basic facts of the story (e.g. How many bullets were fired? Was an official complaint filed?) or around the nature and the meaning of events (e.g. Does a given case  Reich and Barnoy 3 embody a murder case or self-defense? Does the new governmental plan truly protect the environment or is it merely PR green-washing?). To encompass both, we use the philo-sophical term ‘doxastic disagreement’ (see Christensen and Lackey, 2013) that refers to one’s common beliefs (  Doxa  in Greek = common belief) regarding the actual states of affairs. For the sake of convenience, we use ‘disagreement’ and ‘conflict’ interchangea- bly throughout the article.Exploring the epistemology behind reported disagreements is becoming ever more crucial, when arguments over matters of fact are mounting under the ‘information disor-der’ of the ‘post truth’ era, the escalating polarization and politicization of scientific controversies, the overwhelming assault on the institution of expertise (Anderson, 2017;  Nichols, 2017; Nisbet and Fahy, 2015; Sloman and Fernbach, 2017; Wardle, 2017), mounting complexity of the issues covered (Hoffman et al., 2014; Nichols, 2017; Urry, 2005), and the increasingly ‘manipulable’ character of the media (Lawrence and Schafer, 2011: 778) that conveys more deceptive and opposing claims ‘leav[ing] open the ques-tion where truth lies’ (Patterson, 2013: 48). Literature review Communication scholars have always been attracted to disagreements, discussing them under a myriad of banners, primarily in framing studies (Bartholomé et al., 2017; Ghincul and Schuck, 2018; Lawrence, 2000; Rogan, 2006; Semetko and Valkenburg, 2000). Other strands of journalism studies that address disagreement include: newsworthiness (Galtung and Ruge, 1965; Harcup and O’Neill, 2017), journalists’ ‘watchdog’ role and their commitment to verification (Godler and Reich, 2017), ‘strategic rituals’ of objectiv-ity (Tuchman, 1972), coverage of wars and conflicts (Lynch and Galtung, 2010), journal-ists’ responsiveness to the indexing ques of the political echelons (Bennett, 1990), and their tendency to adhere to ‘spheres of consensus’ and spheres of ‘legitimate controversy’ (Hallin, 1986), to name a few.Studies of disagreement in journalism have three major shortcomings that this article wishes to overcome. First, they tend to focus on mega scientific and political conflicts (Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004; Clarke, 2008; Lawrence, 2000; Lawrence and Schafer, 2011; Pingree, 2011; Stocking and Holstein, 2009). On the other hand, in day-to-day disagreements that constitute the main course in the public news diet, journalistic perfor-mance might differ due to the less esoteric knowledge requirements of scientific issues and without the ‘backfire effect’ that hinders the coverage of political controversies (Pingree, 2011). Second, former studies have systematically overlooked the epistemic aspects of disagreement. This may have some methodological roots since almost all stud-ies relied on content analysis (cf. Ghincul and Schuck, 2018; Lawrence, 2000; Pingree, 2011; Stocking and Holstein, 2009), which narrowed their exposure to the epistemic realities of newswork (Reich and Barnoy, 2016). And third, journalism scholars expect  journalists to adjudicate every potential disagreement (Jamieson and Waldman, 2003; Pingree, 2011; Rosen, 2009), overlooking the complexities of disagreements and the detrimental epistemic consequences of hasty adjudications.Avoiding adjudication, using the ‘he said, she said’ format, is overwhelmingly denounced as ‘lame journalism’ (Rosen, 2009), a ‘passive’ mode of reporting (Pingree,  4  Journalism 00(0) 2011), a ‘strategic ritual’ (Tuchman, 1972; see also Lawrence and Schafer, 2011), super-ficial ‘fairness’, formulaic reporting that allows journalists to avoid ‘doing their home-work’ (Pingree, 2011: 22), and evade their role as the ‘custodian of facts’ (Jamieson and Waldman, 2003: 197; see also Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2010; Patterson, 2013) ‘separat-ing factual wheat from fallacious chaff’ (Lawrence and Schafer, 2011: 777). Hence, scholars describe reporters as undergoing a sort of ‘epistemic paralysis’ in situations of disagreement, using the ‘he said, she said’ formula (Jamieson and Waldman, 2003; Pingree, 2011; Rosen, 2009).According to the literature, evading adjudication may have detrimental epistemic con-sequences for the health of a democracy. It may ‘devolve in practice to an epistemic rela-tivism that fails to consider the validity of various truth claims and to meet journalism’s emancipatory goals’ (Durham, 1998), leave audiences in a helpless position (Pingree, 2011; Rosen, 2009), enable a disconnect between media and scientific discourse (Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004), ‘manufacture uncertainty’ (Rosen, 2009), encouraging skeptics to suspect evidence (Clarke, 2008), and invite audiences to exercise selective perception (Tuchman, 1972).On the other hand, adjudication can enhance informed citizenry (Lawrence and Schafer, 2011; Patterson, 2013), keep political elites more accountable (Jamieson and Waldman, 2003; Pingree, 2011), and restrain self-interest, hackers, propagandists, popu-lists, malicious bots, and others to spread dis/mis and mal information and spin (Lawrence and Schafer, 2011; Stocking and Holstein, 2009).Our main claim is that the broad adjudication expected in journalism studies is not only too ambitious and unrealistic under the myriad of constraints that characterize jour-nalism, but also epistemically hazardous. According to the philosophical and pragmatic literature, adjudication is often unattainable in day-to-day disagreements (Christensen and Lackey, 2013; Kinzel and Kusch, 2016), let alone in major scientific disputes, that may endure for ages (Dascal, 1998, 2001).There are three major constraints that impede adjudication in journalism:1.  Logistical  . In current news environments, reporters experience a growing shortage of time (Reich and Godler, 2014), or other resources such as limited reporting staff, responsive and accountable news sources, and accessible news scenes – challenges that are aggravated in ‘deskbound’ news environments. According to Rosen (2009) the ‘he said, she said’ format has a logistical func-tion, since it makes the story ‘instantly writable’. Hence it is not a problem, ‘but a solution to the reporter’s (deadline!) problem’. Out of three ideal types of disagreement suggested by philosopher Marcelo Dascal (1998, 2001), only one  – ‘discussions’ – can be solved within a relatively short time-frame, such as those typical of news reporting, while ‘disputes’ and ‘controversies’ are hardly resolvable even under broader time frames and in more equipped disciplines. According to Dascal, journalists cannot adjudicate disagreements before par-ties have a chance to exhaust the conciliatory options, encounter new evidence, or agree on methods of adjudication (Dascal, 1998, 2001; Kinzel and Kusch, 2016). It is doubtful whether all these can occur within the narrow window of news reporting.  Reich and Barnoy 5 2.  Ideological  . Coverage of disagreements is shaped by normative and ideological forces (Clarke, 2008; Durham, 1998). These include not only epistemic ideals (e.g. accuracy, verification, reporting things as they are, collecting and scrutiniz-ing evidence and the public’s right to be informed), but also ethical values that call for more equivocal coverage (e.g. multi-perspectivism, pluralism, diversity, inclusiveness, balance, neutrality, detachment, and the need to present ‘all sides’ of an issue (Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004; Clarke, 2008; Durham, 1998; Gans, 2011; Pingree, 2011).3.  Epistemic . Pragmatics theory is highly skeptical about the chances of quick and  justified adjudications, due to the extreme complexity of disagreements. Cases of disagreement are described as multidirectional (may affect either or both par-ties), multifunctional (i.e. may be a sign of hostility or affiliation), ambiguous, and polysemous (Georgakopoulou, 2012; Sifianou, 2012). To adjudicate such disagreements, one must explore not only their context, but also the personal traits of the parties and their relational histories that may extend beyond the cur-rent activity (Sifianou, 2012). Such explorations are unattainable with schedules of daily reporting. Furthermore, some disputes are unresolvable and some facts are ‘non-verifiable’ (Dascal, 1998, 2001; Tuchman, 1972). Other cases may involve events that are still unfolding (Rom and Reich, 2017) and the jurisdic-tion of other epistemic agencies (e.g. police, the courts, or public regulators) that have both the legal authority and expertise that journalists do not possess (Lippmann, 1922; Patterson, 2013; Pingree, 2011; Reich and Godler, 2016); finally, adjudication can often require ‘meta expertise’, that is, expertise in oth-ers’ expertise (Collins and Evans, 2008) that is beyond the capacities of ordinary  journalists. Hence, expecting adjudication at any cost might have a negative impact if audiences rely on arbitrary choices of journalists. Rather than expect-ing adjudication, the epistemic literature is mainly concerned with the question ‘how much belief-revision, if any, is required in order for a belief to be rational in light of this disagreement’ (Christensen and Lackey, 2013: 1). Parties are expected to either reduce their confidence in their own position, according to the ‘conciliatory’ doctrine, or stick to their guns, according to the ‘steadfast’ doc-trine (in practice, most scholars of knowledge consider both doctrines are appro- priate under suitable consideration).Hence, epistemic theory offers several important lessons for the conduct of journalists in cases of factual disputes. First, one of their greatest epistemic challenges is how to diagnose whether the parties are indeed ‘epistemic peers’ and – if not – which party holds an inferior epistemic position, or even constitutes a pseudo-peer trying to ‘manufacture disagreement’ to promote his or her agenda. The extent to which journalists can evaluate the epistemic weight of contending parties and treat them as epistemic peers by default is at best questionable.Second, journalists should adjudicate conflicting views according to each party’s familiarity with the evidence and its competence to evaluate evidence correctly. Third,  journalists’ adjudication might have been easier, had the parties been in a ‘conciliatory’ mood. Practically, however, in many disagreements disputants try to bolster an image of
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