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Why Journalists Do Not Use Philosophy

One of the well-known projects was The Stone column in The New York Times. The philosophy column called Unthinkable is still run by The Irish Times. Some philosophy foundations have started projects to enable philosophers to write for public media.
A monument of Jalaluddin Rumi. Representational image. Photo: X/@philosophors

Newspaper journalists, while writing on topics, use ideas from history, sociology, sciences and other disciplines to establish the relevance of a topic and analyse pertinent questions. Indian journalists, however, rarely seem to draw upon philosophical ideas despite being relevant to the discussion. For instance, moral philosophers’ views are not used or presented in articles on social conflicts.

Science journalism mentions historical and sociological perspectives but does not include insights from the philosophy of science. The only kind of newspaper articles that draw from philosophy in India are opinion pieces written by a handful of philosophers.

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

The non-engagement with philosophy is a characteristic of journalism across the world. Although there have been a few initiatives in the Global North to bridge this gap. Most of these have been confined to the opinion columns section of newspapers.

One of the well-known projects was The Stone column in The New York Times. The philosophy column called Unthinkable is still run by The Irish Times. Some philosophy foundations have started projects to enable philosophers to write for public media.

Bringing philosophy to journalism requires a proactive philosophy community. And this not happening in the Indian context —says something about the health of Indian academic philosophy.

However, this aspect just accounts for Indian philosophers not writing for newspapers. It is still not clear, though, why Indian journalists are sidestepping philosophy. Are there any pragmatic constraints of the profession that filter out philosophical ideas? What presumptions of journalists about philosophy are at play here?

Philosophy is unknown and abstract

For deputy editor of The Hindu, Mukunth V, the main reason for the absence of philosophy in Indian newspapers is the public’s unfamiliarity with the subject. This makes the journalists’ job difficult to present pertinent discussions.

As senior associate editor of The Telegraph, Uddalak Mukherjee points out, the “antagonism” of journalists towards scholarly work also contributes to the situation. This attitude is not without a cause. The jargonised academic discourse renders philosophy a subject that deals with “abstract ideals that have no practical applications”.

Probably because of this, Jitesh Pandey, Mass Communication faculty, Karnavati University thinks philosophy cannot be articulated in a simple manner to the public.

These diagnoses identify important challenges and also bring forth the vicious circle that perpetuates the problem. The underlying factor here is philosophy being specialised knowledge accessible only to a few experts.

This, however, cannot be the only reason as other disciplines are equally technical and inaccessible. Why is it that journalists, who toil through other difficult ideas, do not put similar effort into philosophy?

Instance of a larger problem?

The asymmetry in journalism’s coverage of disciplines clarifies some aspects of the problem. News and research developments in sciences and some social science disciplines are reported more extensively than others. There is also a difference in the way disciplines’ professionals and their work are portrayed in media.

For instance, scientists are often referred to as “researchers”. In contrast, scholars of humanities and social sciences usually appear as “commentators on pre-existing news stories”. This distinction stems from the non-acknowledgement of the expertise in the concerned domains, as these disciplines are presumed to study everyday activities and phenomena.

Moving from the communication of disciplines to their uses in journalism, another preference can be noticed. Journalism has gradually come to use social science methods and ideas to make sense of news. This way of doing journalism started some decades back with the intention of not just reporting but interpreting the news as well. This development also correlates with the steady increase of social scientists appearing as expert commentators on general news.

These two features of contemporary journalism explain, to some extent, the absence of philosophy. 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.

Also read: Gandhi and the Future of Slow Philosophy

recent survey of science journalism practice in India substantiates these observations. Among the topics covered by Indian science journalists, “Philosophy of Science” is absent. However, “Science and Society” and “History of Science” are among the dominant topics.

Unfamiliarity and omissions

Philosophy’s absence in journalism can be traced to journalism education. The BA and PG diploma programmes on mass communication, as Pandey attests, dominantly focus on technical skills. The remaining quota for theoretical courses in the syllabi only covers some social science topics.

Aman Khanna, senior associate editor, Scroll, cautions that not all journalists have a journalism degree. Since people from various educational backgrounds enter the profession, school curricula not having philosophy need to be factored in. Also, Khanna thinks that there might not be many philosophy graduates doing journalism. Even if there are only a few, whether they are implementing their philosophy training in the work remains to be explored.

When journalists are largely ignorant of philosophy, they can hardly be blamed for not drawing from it. Sayantan Datta, science journalist and faculty, Krea University, however, mentions instances where philosophy is invisibilised.

Sometimes journalists use philosophical ideas unknowingly but do not acknowledge them as they do not put the effort to trace their origin. In other cases, the ideas involved during the framing of an article get buried as the “angle” of the article is “not told, but shown”. These kinds of omissions are of concern.

Contrasting conceptions of philosophy

The unfamiliarity with the discipline has cultivated two contrasting images of philosophy in journalism.

Some journalists, who acknowledge that philosophy is not explicitly used, add that journalism implicitly involves it.

According to Mukunth, journalists are employing philosophy when deciding the basics – what, why and how – of a story.

Shubashree Desikan, adjunct faculty, Asian College of Journalism believes that philosophy is present “implicitly in the practice and teaching” of science journalism. Especially, knowing the science required for an article demands understanding the “underlying philosophy”.

Philosophy, as a discipline, does study things – like reasoning and foundations of science – that are integral to journalism practice. But someone merely doing these does not imply they are using philosophy.

For instance, even though science explains how a ball moves, someone need not be using it whenever they throw the ball. In the case of philosophy, this kind of confusion happens when the discipline and its ideas are not distinguished from other colloquial meanings of “philosophy”, like “the most basic beliefs, concepts” of something.

The conversations with the journalists also reveal another conception of philosophy. Mukherjee thinks opinion columns are more amenable for philosophy articles as they provide the space for “deeper engagement”. Similarly, Mukunth opines that magazines, unlike newspapers, provide the required space and time for philosophical deliberations.

These suggestions though arising from pragmatic concerns presume that the articulation of philosophical ideas usually requires detailed discussions and that these ideas are relevant only for an in-depth examination of something.

The presence of these two extreme conceptions of philosophy has resulted in the current state of affairs. On one side, the bare conception of philosophy reduces it to aspects implicitly present everywhere and hence, obvious to mention. Contrary to this, its conception as a specialised knowledge makes philosophical ideas elusive, hard and better restricted to opinion articles.

The way forward

If journalism’s role is just to observe and report, then the philosophy’s absence is not surprising, as journalism is merely mirroring its absence in society. However, when journalism is construed to be collaborative, radical and constructive, it can address the absence within and in society.

As philosophical ideas are presently confined to opinion articles, having dedicated philosophy columns, like the one edited by Mukherjee at The Telegraph, will give the required initial push. Philosophy articles have steadily increased in Indian platforms, primarily due to the trend of republishing from international websites. Instead of this, editors can collaborate with Indian scholars and foster a community of philosophers who can write for newspapers.

For philosophy to eventually be used in mainstream journalism practice, journalists need to become familiar with it. Without that, philosophy will remain dual-faced, both trivial and extraordinary.

Varun S. Bhatta is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal. He is the co-moderator of Indian Philosophy Network The views expressed in the article by the author and the respondents are personal opinions and are not of their respective institutions.

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