The Reason for Reasoning In News Coverage
How Journalists Reach Conclusions
I introduced logic and reasoning in the last newsletter. We looked at several logical fallacies, so let’s move next to three types of reasoning that every journalist should have in their toolkit —
The terms are based on the Latin word ducere, which means “to lead.” The use of reasoning in journalism will “lead” the journalist to determine what is true.
The prefix de in deductive means “from. The prefix in in inductive means “to, toward.” The prefix ab in abductive means “away,” as in taking away the best explanation.
What we want to accomplish in this newsletter is to better understand how journalists can use each type of reasoning and how news consumers can identify when a story is “reasonable” to believe.
Deduction is generally defined as "the deriving of a conclusion by reasoning." Its specific meaning in logic is "inference in which the conclusion about particulars follows necessarily from general or universal premises." Simply put, deduction—or the process of deducing—is the formation of a conclusion based on generally accepted statements or facts … Deductive reasoning always follows necessarily from general or universal premises. Merriam-Webster
Deductive reasoning (also called deduction) involves starting from a set of general premises and then drawing a specific conclusion that contains no more information than the premises themselves. Deductive reasoning is sometimes called deduction (note that deduction has other meanings in the contexts of mathematics and accounting). Dictionary.com
Reasoning from the general to the particular, for example by developing a hypothesis based on theory and then testing it from an examination of facts. Also known as deduction. Compare inductive reasoning. Oxford Reference
While journalists can learn a lot about reasoning from books, OJT (on-the-job training) may be the best way to incorporate deductive reasoning in their process. Journalists should remember that most of the people they talk with in covering a story have some expertise in an area of reasoning. Spending time with people who are accomplished in a wide variety of occupations affords a unique educational opportunity for young journalists.
I learned a lot about deductive reasoning by working with police and fire investigators, coroners, attorneys, and judges in my early days as a journalist. I worked the public safety/courts beat for many years, so that’s why I mention those occupations. People in many other fields use deductive reasoning, so every journalist can learn from them as they cover stories. Some examples are doctors, scientists, teachers, mathematicians, statisticians, air traffic controllers, and psychologists.
Whereas in deduction the truth of the conclusion is guaranteed by the truth of the statements or facts considered (the hot dog is served in a split roll and a split roll with a filling in the middle is a sandwich), induction is a method of reasoning involving an element of probability. In logic, induction refers specifically to "inference of a generalized conclusion from particular instances." In other words, it means forming a generalization based on what is known or observed … Induction is at play here since your reasoning is based on an observation of a small group, as opposed to universal premises. Merriam-Webster
Inductive is used to describe reasoning that involves using specific observations, such as observed patterns, to make a general conclusion. This method is sometimes called induction. Induction starts with a set of premises, based mainly on experience or experimental evidence. It uses those premises to generalize a conclusion. Dictionary.com
Argument that seeks to reach generalizations by reasoning from an assembly of particular observations. Francis Bacon was its first proponent as applied to science. It remains an important mode of (and a collection of methods for) scientific reasoning. Oxford Reference
I also learned about inductive reasoning from people in the legal and law enforcement professions. Scientists, professors, engineers, doctors, nurses, therapists, and other health-related specialties also use inductive reasoning. Some college courses I took in hermeneutics also helped me learn how to use inductive reasoning in journalism as well as in Bible study.
The third method of reasoning, abduction, is defined as "a syllogism in which the major premise is evident but the minor premise and therefore the conclusion only probable." Basically, it involves forming a conclusion from the information that is known. A familiar example of abduction is a detective's identification of a criminal by piecing together evidence at a crime scene. In an everyday scenario, you may be puzzled by a half-eaten sandwich on the kitchen counter. Abduction will lead you to the best explanation. Merriam-Webster
Abductive reasoning is most easily understood through the analogy of a doctor diagnosing his patient’s illness. He gathers a hypothesis from the patient’s symptoms, or otherwise evidence that he deems factual, and from there, goes down the list of maladies and tries to assign the appropriate illness. This is as opposed to deductive or inductive reasoning. More generally, abductive reasoning is the logical process where one chooses a hypothesis that would best fit the given facts. Brown University
Abductive reasoning is the process of adopting an explanatory hypothesis — Oxford Reference
I learned about abductive reasoning from professors of philosophy, computer programmers, managers, theologians, scientists, and people in health-related fields. I also witnessed its use in court trials where evidence was circumstantial. Prosecution and defense presented their best logic and reasoning, but a jury had to determine guilt or innocence. I talked with many jury members after a trial was finished, and they often mentioned reaching a conclusion based on choosing what best fit the given facts.
The Reasoning Process — Reaching A
Journalism is a process that includes logic and reason. It begins with a story event or idea. A story event would be when the journalist attends a meeting or protest or goes to the scene of a crime, fire or accident. A story idea might be a followup to a previous story or something that comes from a journalist’s curiosity.
The next step in the journalistic process is to gather information about the story. That would include making observations at the event or other story location, talking with people, asking questions, recording answers, etc. The journalist might do some research based on their observations and answers to questions. That process of gathering information leads to knowledge about the story.
Once the journalist is knowledgeable about a story, they use that knowledge to draw a conclusion based on the process of reasoning. They might use one, two or more types of reasoning to reach their conclusion.
Once the journalist has reached a conclusion about a story, they write their story and submit it to a producer, editor or manager for approval. Producers, editors, and managers should also use logic and reasoning in their approval process. Journalism works best when both the external (e.g. reporter and photographer) and internal (e.g. producer, editor, manager) sections of a news department are following the same process for determining the truth about every story.
Once the story is approved, it is broadcast or published for the public to watch, hear or read.
It’s a rather simple process that’s repeated hundreds of thousands of times every day in newsrooms across the country and millions of times each day in newsrooms around the world.
Here’s the process in a shorter form —
Journalist covers story (event or idea)
Journalist gathers information and gains knowledge about the story
Journalist uses logic and reason to reach a conclusion about the story
Journalist writes their report and submits it to an editor for approval
Approved story is broadcast or published
Members of the public see, hear or read the story
Even though the process is easy to explain, it’s not always easy to do.
The use of reasoning (any of the methods) depends on logic, which depends on the control of bias. That’s one of the difficult parts of the journalistic process. Journalists have to control their personal bias and recognize the bias of people involved in their story.
Point of View
It’s helpful as a journalist to realize that everyone involved in a story has a particular point of view. What I mean by that is they have a particular way of seeing things within a story. Some people are very open and helpful in sharing information with a journalist. They are not in “protective mode.” However, some people are closed and unhelpful in sharing information with a journalist. They may be in “protective mode.”
One of the responsibilities journalists have is to determine whether they can believe what they see, hear or read.
I’ve been lied to so many times as a journalist that I lost count decades ago. I’ve been lied to by people in every segment and at every level of society. I was already skeptical by nature when I started as a journalist, so the lying I heard from people involved in stories I covered made me even more skeptical through the years. The key is to not let your skepticism get to the point where you can’t believe anyone. Truth is out there — you have to keep digging until you find it.
I probably met more truthful people in my coverage of stories, but they were often not the powerful people. As British historian and politician Sir John Dalberg-Acton was quoted as saying — “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Experience taught me to be more skeptical of powerful people than people without power. Powerful people sometimes lie to journalists to protect themselves, family, friends, and other powerful people from the consequences of bad or corrupt decisions and actions.
Journalists have to have a way to separate truth from lies. That’s the benefit of the journalistic process. Stay true to the process and it will almost always lead you to the truth.
Logic and reasoning are an important part of that process. If something sounds like a lie, there’s a good chance it’s a lie. Look deeper. If something looks like a lie, there’s a good chance it’s a lie. Look deeper. Use all the tools at your disposal to find, confirm, and report truth. Don’t give up, and don’t give in. Stay with it until you know your story is right.
Journalists should keep in mind that at this moment the majority of news consumers believe journalists are not reporting the truth. That’s most unfortunate for at least one of these three possible reasons —
The majority of journalists are not reporting the truth, or
A minority of journalists are not reporting the truth, casting a negative light over much of journalism, or
All journalists are reporting the truth, and the public is wrong in its judgment
It’s obvious as a journalist and news consumer that some reporting is false. It’s either false on its face (from only what is known at first) or the truth eventually comes out and everyone sees the original reporting contained false information and/or the conclusion was false.
Whether false reporting is in the majority or the minority would be difficult to determine with certitude. However, we can be certain that a majority of news consumers do not trust journalists.
Journalism has to do better.
I’ll share a special guest article in our next newsletter about the demise of the printed newspaper and evolution of the new media environment for public affairs.
I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as a journalist or news consumer. Please share your comments and I’ll respond as quickly as I can. If you like what we’re doing in this newsletter, please let your friends know about it so they can subscribe.
The purpose of this newsletter is to help journalists understand how to do real journalism and the public know how they can find news they can trust on a daily basis. It’s a simple purpose, but complicated to accomplish. I’ll do my best to make it as clear as I can in future newsletters.
I have exciting news to share: You can now read Mark McGee’s Newsletter in the new Substack app for iPhone.
With the app, you’ll have a dedicated Inbox for my Substack and any others you subscribe to. New posts will never get lost in your email filters, or stuck in spam. Longer posts will never cut-off by your email app. Comments and rich media will all work seamlessly. Overall, it’s a big upgrade to the reading experience.
The Substack app is currently available for iOS. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can join the Android waitlist here.