Changing Epistemological Foundations
Changing Epistemological Foundations in Journalism
and Their Implications for Environmental News
Rick Clifton Moore
Department of Communication
Boise State University
Boise, ID 93725
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Submitted to the Communication Theory and Methodology Division
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
1997 Annual Convention
Changing Epistemological Foundations in Journalism
and Their Implications for Environmental News
In their essay on the "third crisis in journalism," Bybee and Hacker (1990)
offer a metaphor that propose a metaphor that the mass media are a wagon
carrying our political and social structure. Within this metaphor, objectivity
is seen as a wheel that is coming loose. For a number of reasons, the two
theorists believe that objectivity as a tradition in journalism is under serious
threat and might soon fall away, leaving the wagon very unstable.
In this paper, I wish to suggest that the wheel of objectivity was actually
borrowed from the social sciences. In its original form in the academy, it was
known as positivism. The point of this paper is that the original owners of the
wheel perceived the instability of that wheel some time ago and have already
shifted to a newer model, the newer model is postmodernism. It is very possible,
being the borrowers that they are, that the journalistic community will soon
take the same action. Some journalism educators have already been suggesting a
similar abandonment of objectivity and a shift to postmodernism. Herein I wish
to discuss the rationale suggested for such a move and attempt to weigh the
costs and benefits the changeover might involve. Special attention is given in
this paper to costs and benefits that can be seen in a specific instance of
journalism, environmental news.
Journalism and its Relation to Social Science
A number of scholars have pointed out the ways journalism and the social
sciences share common ideals. Charles Lemert (1993, p. 2), for example, suggests
that social science (social theory, as he calls it) is the process all of us
engage in when we learn something important about the world around us and put it
into words. News reporters are certainly a privileged group among this larger
body (which Lemert suggests should include us all as humans) in that they are
paid to put experience into words. C. Wright Mills (1959), certainly one of the
renowned sociologists of the twentieth century, makes a similar claim in the
need for all citizens in our time to make use of what he calls the "sociological
imagination." When listing groups of people for whom the skills of sociological
imagination are most useful, journalists get specific recognition.
Perhaps Stephen Reese (1990) makes this point most forcefully in his discussion
of journalism as a paradigmatic activity like social science. His claim is that
all human inquiry is reliant on certain assumptions. Journalists operate within
a given set of assumptions just as sociologists do. In the following section we
examine the nature of those assumptions as they have existed throughout most of
this century and how those assumptions have been challenged in the last three
decades by a new paradigm. Though the new paradigm has not necessarily replaced
the old, there are indications that it could. The implications for such
replacement are important for consideration.
Positivism and Journalism
Neil Postman (1993) argues that the 19th century was a watershed period in the
history of the American people in that we saw a clear change of ideological
orientation from a traditional to a technocratic world view. As part of this
progression, people began to put more faith in a positivistic approach to human
thinking first espoused by Auguste Comte. Comte claimed that the world had
reached a new height of intellectual maturity in that it could honestly approach
the process of inquiry without the manacles of theological or even metaphysical
thinking. Instead, inquirers could coolly analyze the world around them and gain
precise, positive knowledge of its condition. Of course, this required humans to
give up much of their old, traditional ideology. Postman's claim is that society
as a whole chose to do so largely because technology (as one product of the new
form of thinking called positivism) granted what it promised, more material
products and comfort. On that account, positivism delivered the goods.
Soon, however, positivistic thinking invaded all of life. What delivered the
goods in the material dimension, was assumed to be able to deliver the goods on
every front. Postman's point is that all areas of life were eventually limited
to thinking in the same mode as the natural sciences. That is, positivism became
the modus operandi for all forms of human experience, spreading slowly to the
farthest branches of human inquiry. Schiller (1981, p. 83) is in great agreement
when he stresses the growing power of positivism in the mid-nineteenth century
and the way it "nurtured a widespread acceptance of a uniform, objective world."
Both authors also link the movement to Francis Bacon, whose key idea was the
utilization of objective knowledge for the benefit of human progress.
In admitting that such a mode of inquiry does offer benefits to a society,
Postman is stating that it may take some time for a group of people to recognize
the drawbacks therein. Little wonder, then, that a number of authors suggest
that positivism was the dominant mode of inquiry for much of the twentieth
century (Diesing, 1991; O'Keefe, 1975, p. 169). The rule of positivism might be
said to have reached its high point in the period shortly after World War II
(Bochner, 1985, p. 28) and did not meet any serious threat to its ideological
dominance until the late 1960s or 1970s. Until this point in history, positivism
was seen as a foundation upon which much of human progress depended.
That foundation was largely the same regardless of the field in which
positivism was applied. Thus, positivism for a physicist was the same a
positivism for a journalist. Bybee and Hacker (1990), for example, offer a
description of the positivism of American journalism that could just as easily
describe the application of these epistemological foundations to astronomy or
psychology. Their claim is that in positivistic journalism, "Reality is assumed
to exist out there. It is perceived accurately or inaccurately as our senses and
instruments of observation allow. Objectivity of knowledge is the ideal of human
understanding" (Bybee and Hacker, 1990, p. 55). Expressed similarly by
Krippendorf (1989, p. 69), the key to positivism "lies in the metaphorical
grounding of objectivity in the conception of thinglike objects existing outside
and independent of scientific observers." More succinctly:
Our research reports refer to facts as hard, solid, concrete, or tangible.
Facts are raw, original, simple, or uncontaminated. Facts are searched for,
gotten, found, picked up, collected, gathered from above ground or uncovered,
unearthed, dug up from below the surface. Once the observers have obtained such
natural and thinglike facts, they may sort them, weigh them, describe them,
arrange them, tabulate them, preserve them, look at them, describe them, record
them, and process them in the form of data. (Krippendorf, 1989, p. 69)
Of great importance and quite noticeable in all of the above comments is the
fact that positivism was intended to make a sharp distinction between facts and
values (Bloom, 1975). This is crucial in understanding the application of
positivism to journalism. In its purest form, positivism was limited completely
to facts. As Davis (1995, p. 339) suggests that journalists had one tremendous
disadvantage in comparison to scientists. They really had no time to theorize
about their facts. This process was left to a small number of editorial writers.
Schiller (1981, p. 83) suggests the epitome of positivism in the journalism
profession is a Milwaukee editor who commended an article by saying it had been
confined "almost entirely to the facts observed." This is not to suggest that
positivism was the sole source of the notion of objectivity in news production.
Theodore Glasser (1992) and Bybee and Hacker (1990) make compelling arguments
that objectivity is at least partly a product of the demands of the
commodification of news brought on by the marketplace. The connections between
these two sources need not concern us here. The crucial point is that in
applying positivism to the form of communication we call journalism, we detached
facts from values. Objectivity, in this light is amorality (Glasser, 1992, p.
176). Just as a positivist physicist was thought to have a duty to simply
describe the effects of gravity in a detached, objective manner, a reporter was
thought to have a duty to social occurrences in the same manner. Positivism was
no respecter of persons.
And in an era in which persons were generally thought to be improving (or, at
least capable of improvement) this was of no great concern. That is, during the
optimism that drove American society for a large part of this century, concerns
over the epistemological (and axiological) dimensions of positivism as it
applied to the social sciences and journalism were not widespread. Up until the
1960s many had faith that these two great features of modern American democracy
might produce a great society, one in which humans overcame many of the problems
which had brought earlier civilizations crumbling after relatively short
life-spans (Lemert, 1993, p. 299-300).
But as the century began to wane and many social problems were not showing
signs of improving (many were, in fact, showing signs of getting worse), larger
numbers of critics began to question the wellsprings of our social knowledge.
Though positivism in the hard sciences had continued to produce better material
products and generally improve the material conditions of the average citizen,
the average citizen had not been improved. That is, many of the social problems
for which social science had promised solutions went unanswered. The reason for
a dearth of answers was not certain to those at the academy or at the journal.
But one common suggestion was that the method of inquiry which had provided
numerous answers in biology, chemistry, and physics was not an appropriate
method for answering many of the perennial questions about humankind and social
The Critique of Positivism
Klaus Krippendorf is one of the many scholars who in recent years has suggested
that positivism has outlived its usefulness. For Krippendorf the old paradigm
does not help us produce knowledge about humans and especially about the most
human element of our experience, communication. More than this lack of success,
however, he also cites logical inconsistencies as a source of problems. As he
states it, "Clearly, there must be something wrong with a paradigm that is so
little suited to produce knowledge about human communication and creates so many
epistemological problems for itself"(Krippendorf, 1989, p. 75).
Looming among these problems was the role of the human object as subject. That
is, how could a system of inquiry largely formed for the purpose of studying
detached physical objects such as rocks be used to offer knowledge of the ones
actually doing the studying? The reflexive nature of the social sciences was
All social sciences were to be asked to deal with this difficult issue. Anthony
Giddens (1989, p. 53) talks of a such difficulty in academia. Such a problem, he
claims is "not specific to communication studies. It is a general 'crisis,' if
you like, of the social sciences." The study of communication (including
journalism) is seen as a part of the larger field of social science. A crisis in
the latter will eventually be a crisis in the former. Bochner (1985, p. 32) uses
similar terminology in describing the "crisis of confidence" experienced by the
social sciences during the 1970s.
That journalism sooner or later falls victim to this crisis is clear in the
analysis of Bybee and Hacker, who suggest the importance of this crisis for the
question of objectivity in news writing. Their opinion is that "while
previously, the concept of objectivity [for journalists] found validity in other
areas of research and thought such as academia, those bases of support are no
longer as available" (Bybee and Hacker, 1990, p. 65). Their point is that the
journalistic community needs to recognize that it's platform has very recently
been pulled from under it. During most of this century, journalism paid respect
to the academy by relying on its epistemological foundations for its livelihood
and its chief productDin the form of liberally educated graduatesDfor labor.
Bybee and Hacker are suggesting that scholars at the academy have found
increasing difficulty making sense of positivism and thus journalists will soon
find increasing difficulty making sense of objectivity. To continue to see
objectivity as a mainstay of the journalistic enterprise will take great effort.
The concept of objectivity has failed to account for the recent theoretical
advances in our understanding of the processes through which meaning and
knowledge are created. It has also ignored the essential political character of
those processes." (Bybee and Hacker, 1990, p. 53)
For Bybee and Hacker, this all leads to a very visible crisis for journalists.
The visibility in the field of journalism is due to the fact that the profession
has already experienced two significant crises to this point in history (Bybee
and Hacker, 1990, p. 61-64). Just as the first two crises radically changed the
nature of the field, this third has the potential to do so.
Refugees from Positivism
Giddens (1989) claims that nobody exists now who would refer to him or herself
as a positivist. In even stronger language, he states that "This has become sort
of a scare term" (p. 53). He suggests that we use the term "naturalism" instead.
The main point to note is that undergraduates at today's universities are
unlikely to want to attach themselves to this term (perhaps also to any other
associated with it). In such a case we would expect many future journalists to
adhere to an alternative proposed to them by their professors in communication
and the social sciences. Probably the most common alternative at today's
university is postmodernism.
Forewarning us of this, Bybee and Hacker (1990) suggest that it is those who
study the sociology of knowledge whose constant hammering has begun to make many
question positivism. Much of this work began in Europe, especially in France,
where Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and Baudrillard called into question the very
foundations of modernism.
On American soil, the likely candidate for supreme spokesperson for
postmodernism is Richard Rorty. Rorty's reservations about epistemology and
language spring from his conception of "vocabularies" with which we attempt to
describe the world. For Rorty, it is futile to speak of the world "out there"
and come to any real knowledge of it. That is, we can really have no truth of
the world around us.
Truth cannot be out there--cannot exist independently of the human
mind--because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out
there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world
can be true or false, the world on its own-- unaided by the describing
activities of human beings--cannot. (Rorty, 1989, p. 5).
After this opening volley, the reader might respond, "But is it not possible
that one description of the world is better than another?" Rorty says no,
because our descriptions are always couched within "vocabularies." In other
words, when we attempt to describe the world around us we must fall back on a
given language. His use of the word "language" does not only apply to different
languages such as English, French, and German. It also refers to differences
such as the language of Aristotle, or the language of St. Paul, or the language
of Newton (Rorty, 1989, p. 6). We use such language as the basic framework for
understanding the world. Yet these cannot be judged, according to Rorty. In his
mind none can be determined to be better than another.
Given this premise, Rorty (1989, p. 73) sees no alternative to the modern
inquirer than to become an "ironist." Ironists, in his use of the term, are
people who have grave doubts about the ability of their language to determine
truth. Their doubts are so strong that they recognize a complete inability to
escape this condition linguistically, and a recognition that any other language
is no better or worse than their own. Irony is thus a form of complete
agnosticism. This pessimistic epistemology might seem outrageous, but it bears
much in common with the end results of other postmodern thinkers, for example,
Foucault's recognition of the consistent presence of "regimes of truth," and
Baudrillard's resignation to a world of simulacra.
Mixing Postmodernism and Journalism
Can such epistemological pessimism be of any use to journalists? Davis (1995,
p. 343) takes seriously the possibility that journalism (in its most common form
today) is an institution that could possibly disappear as modernity erodes. It
appears unlikely that current standards and practice can maintain viability if
the world shifts as many think it will. But it is also possible that journalism
can adapt readily to a postmodern world view and survive quite nicely. Several
scholars have proposed Rortyan applications in the practice of news reporting.
For the most part, these writers are attracted to both the creativity and the
utility that postmodernism allows the journalist.
In the broader world of communication studies, for example, Krippendorf (1989,
p. 79) proposes an alternative paradigm to positivism, a paradigm that makes
scientists "aware of their own creativity in constructing the realities we will
all have to live with." With specific reference to journalism, Glasser (1992)
has suggested creativity as an appropriate alternative to objectivity. The
former allows journalistic individuality and imagination. The latter makes
journalists into victims of routine and technique.
Far from a world of such mechanization, Glasser, (1992, p. 181) is suggesting
that journalism in the post-objective world would be more like "story-telling"
than reporting. He and James Ettema (1994, p. 7) ground the idea of storytelling
most firmly in Rorty, who leads them to believe that the ironist's fundamental
role in a postmodern world is to tell stories that make us reluctant to impose
suffering on one another. The creativity of this approach is highlighted when
the authors suggest that the process eventually allows the journalist to "bring
a new world into existence" (p. 7).
Of course, the reaction many traditional journalists have to the notion of
creativity is that it is anathema to the journalist's responsibility to simply
relate facts about the world. Glasser (1992, p. 183) himself quotes Walter
Cronkite as saying "let's go with the job of reportingDand let the chips fall
where they may." Artists are creative; journalists are objective. Granted, for
many old-school reportersDperhaps even Cronkite holds this viewDthe point is not
objectivity for objectivity's sake. It is assumed that once an objective picture
of the world is presented, adjustments to that world can be made. This
perspective posits that the truer the depiction of the world the more likely
good things will result. In other words, any tinkering based on factual
information might bring positive results. Such journalistic "realists" probably
feel that Glasser's creative renditions of the world leave the citizen with
nothing real on which to operate. There is no true basis for citizenship.
Yet the postmodernist claims that there was no "real" basis for citizenship in
the first place. In a Rortyan sense, all descriptions are contingent on a
language. That is, citizens may feel that they have a good grasp of the world
around them and a solid basis on which to judge that world (in the previous
paragraph, this was the vision they use to determine where and how to "tinker").
But Rorty suggests that what communities really have is the ability to describe
the world in such a way as to make sense to themselves. In other words, the
world does not correspond to a certain form of reality, the world is simply
described in such a way that it makes sense to a certain group of people.
Rorty's difficulty with this is that when pressed to explain their vocabulary,
groups simply "redescribe" the world using other words from their vocabulary.
That is, they rely on language to defend their choice of actions. After such a
redescription, a critic can ask what foundation that redescription rests on. In
this unending series of "redescriptions," the community must eventually use
certain words to defend their decisions. These words, words such as "true,"
"good," "right," and "beautiful," are what Rorty calls "final vocabularies"
(Rorty, 1989, p. 73). Rorty, in his anxious antifoundationalism, points this
phenomenon out not for the purpose of defending final vocabularies, but for
showing their fault. He is not willing to accept anybody's final vocabulary as a
barometer of absolute truth. As an ironist, he doubts the validity of any and
all of them. In such a position, he cannot truly defend any notion of truth as
eternal truth, only as contingent truth. And if truth is merely contingent, we
shouldn't grow too attached to it. Rather, we should simply use it as a means to
This utilitarian approach is clear in Rorty and has already been adopted by
many in the broader social sciences. Rorty (1991, p. 110) himself claims he is
working within a pragmatist realm, not a realist one. As he states it, "For now
one is debating what purposes are worth bothering to fulfill, which are more
worthwhile than others, rather than which purposes the nature of humanity or of
reality oblige us to have." Or, put another way, he suggests, "we give up the
notion of science traveling toward an end called 'correspondence with reality'
and instead say merely that a given vocabulary works better than another for a
given purpose" (Rorty, 1982, p. 183). Bochner (1985) says as much when he claims
that even the successes of the natural sciences are utilitarian, not a
reflection of a correspondence theory of truth. Specifically:
What we have learned more recently is that the achievements of natural science
may be due not so much to a method that makes science 'objective' as to
language that makes it 'useful.' (p. 33)
Bochner's point is that communities need not ask how they might find a means of
knowing the real world. Rather, they should ask themselves what they want to
accomplish and choose the appropriate vocabulary for reaching such goals.
To this, Ettema and Glasser are in clear agreement. Journalism for them is not
an attempt to discover concrete realities. In this perspective no concrete
realities are possible or desirable. The impossibility is based on a Rortyan
sense that nothing foundational can support truth claims of any sort. Even
cherished democracy is open to attack and beyond rational defense. Taking an
ironist position, Ettema and Glasser (1994, p. 6) are forced to concede that
when democratic values are challenged, the ironist must recognize that "there is
no ultimate criterion" on which challenges can be dismissed, only contingent
Given this starting point, contingent language is the be all and end all of
postmodern journalism. From such a standpoint, the journalist's role is simply
to tell as many stories as possibleD"listening to lots of different people"
(Ettema and Glasser, 1994, p. 6)Dso that we can build a life together. There
will not be any greater truth developed in our dialogue, but perhaps in sharing
our stories we will be less willing to "inflict suffering on one another"(p. 7).
As mentioned above, this impossibility of concrete reality goes hand in hand
with undesirability of concrete reality. A complete jettisoning of truth is hard
to swallow, but Ettema attempts to support his argument by utilizing the work of
Jean-Francois Lyotard. While Rorty suggests that we should recognize the
foolishness of seeking common truth in metanarrative, Lyotard suggests we should
recognize the negative consequences of that maneuver. Ettema leans heavily on
the French postmodernist who suggests that any attempt to rejuvenate a
metanarrative (even in the service of democracy) is an act of violence against
What this double-edged sword of disbelief in foundations and fear of
violent metanarrativity resigns Ettema and Glasser to is a journalism that
relies on "small stories" (Ettema, 1994, p. 4). These small stories might be
tales of common citizens fighting the injustices imposed on them by public
officials. Or, they might be the unusualDbut very humanDreport of a victim of
war in Central America. In either case they inform the reader of short lived
truths that are supposed to help make sense of events that occur in a
foundationless world where the actions human beings cause pain and suffering.
The Case of Environmental Reporting
Though much of the discussion of postmodernism has revolved around its
epistemological repercussions, the above comments should give some indication
that linkages naturally flow into other theoretical dimensions of inquiry. Any
discussion of the epistemology of postmodern thought will eventually necessitate
a discussion of the ontology and axiology of postmodern thought as well. I
contend that in the case of postmodern journalism these other dimensions are
vividly brought to the front by a discussion of the application of such a
practice to environmental issues.
Environmental news offers a unique frame for finishing our discussion because
it opens new avenues of thought and develops new insights that are not readily
available when postmodern journalism is examined as a purely social phenomenon.
Most of the discussion of postmodern journalism offered thus far assumes that
journalism deals with the humanly created world, the world of social structure.
Certainly a large part of the product we normally think of as "news" does just
that. Yet much of human experience is inextricably linked with the natural
environment. Given this linkage, some news must deal with a reality that
(potentially) has an existence outside of social structure.
Therefore, any epistemological debate about our ability to know essences and to
come to grips with foundations must eventually make connections with the nature
of being or existence. For example, when Ettema and Glasser speak of calling
the world into existence, one must ask what the nature of this new world is and
how it relates to any previously existing worlds. While most communication
scholars would readily admit that humans have a creative ability to hammer out
new social structures (and thus create "realities" for themselves), it is not
readily agreed that we can create an all-encompassing reality that ignores the
intrinsic nature of the world around us. On this there will be sharp
disagreement. Backes (1995), for example, points out that the nature of
environmental reporting is making connections between the human social system
and the "biophysical system" of the natural world. While these two spheres of
existence interrelate and have an impact on one another, neither is subsumed by
Hence the key ontological issue to be addressed here is whether there is any
such thing as extra-discursive reality. If journalism limits its discussion to
the ways that humans make other humans to suffer, one might claim that the field
is devoid of such. If journalism, on the other hand, explores the entire realm
of human experience such a claim is much harder to defend. And certainly if a
journalist is to make any assertion about the state of the natural world (whose
connection to human culture is sometimes more difficult to see) this position is
even harder to hold. Though speaking of social science in general (not
specifically of journalism), Caroline New (1995) states this forcefully.
To make or assess an apocalyptic claim about environmental threat
requires us to believe that reality exists and has certain characteristics
and structures independent of human discourse. Social reality is
discursively constituted, yes, but in response to definite material
conditions, and it, too, takes definite forms of which the social sciences
offer various more or less adequate accounts.(p. 809)
New's point is that epistemological postmodernism has strong ontological
repercussions. To have doubts about our ability to know the world around us is
one thing, but to talk as if that world itself is contingent on our knowledgeDor
doubtsDis another. It is in this way that New (1995, p. 810) accuses Rorty of
throwing out "the ontological baby with the epistemological bathwater." Shepherd
(1993, p. 90) likewise points out that the Rortyan strategy has potential
dangers. "Accepting a view of communication, shorn of any ontological
foundation, and making it paradigmatic of existence entails celebrating the
insignificance of Being itself."
This is not to say that if we choose to work with the conception of
extra-discursive reality that the relationship between it and the human
community will be easy to map out. Any recognition of the ontology of nature
demands a careful explication of humanity's place within (and outside of) it.
And Rorty (1979, p. 351) is obviously concerned about the implications of such
an explication, claiming that it brings back "the bad old metaphysical notion
that the universe is made up of two kinds of things." What this discussion
really does is continue a debate that led many scholars away from the previous
positivistic paradigm. Krippendorf (1985), for example, suggests that positivism
pushed for unobtrusive measures and asked inquirers to divorce themselves from
the object of study. Any discussion of the natural environment begs an analysis
of the actual feasibility of such a tactic. A reporter who writes about air
pollution, for example, cannot divorce herself from the object she studies. For
one thing, she most likely drives an automobile to be able to get to interviews
with scientists and environmental activists. In doing such, she thus adds more
smog to the air she is writing about. But as she interviews the scientist and
the activist she attempts to detach herself from their discussion. The claim
that she can totally divorce herself from the air she breathes is certainly
ludicrous. But the claim that the air itself is completely a product of the
discursive practice of this journalists and all the other communicants in the
social system is equally so.
Put in perspective, the practice of reporting about the environment
demonstrates the complex interwoven relationship that exists between the natural
world created without human input (the biological), and the humanly created
world (the social). Backes (1995, p. 149) points out that these two spheres
overlap in numerous ways. For example, when we refer to many of the elements in
our environment as "natural resources" we have imposed certain conditions upon
them. Our use of this concept drastically affects the way we come to think about
the very nature of pre-existent objects. To claim that these objects are not
impacted by our discourse is noticeable folly. Yet to go to the opposite extreme
and see these items as nothing but the product of discourse is equally so. New
makes this case in regards to Laclau and Mouffe's claim that the ontology of any
object is completely dependent on human discourse. After noting how such
postmodernists link the "being" of a stone to humanity's use of it, New (1995,
p. 815) states:
How we use stones depends in turn on how stones can be used, which
depends on their extra-discursive power. The fact that these may be
variously conceptualised depending on the viewpoint, perceptions, powers
and purposes of the describerDthere is no one truthDdoes not mean that the
characteristics of stones would not exist in a universe where there was
nobody to throw them and nobody to describe it.
Returning to our example of the air we breathe, then, the reporter who tries to
understand the way human activity affects that air must recognize that their are
two dimensions involved. The extra- discursive dimension deals with the orderly
way that this entity exists in the broader realm of creation. The discursive
realm deals with our part in altering the entity and our limited understanding
of the extra-discursive realm as a whole. It is important not to conflate the
two. As New (1995, p. 814) points out, to confuse epistemology (our perception
and knowledge of the environment) with ontology (the environment itself) is
inimical to the project of inquiry.
Another possible area of confusion is between epistemology and axiology. While
much of the discussion of postmodernism has been epistemologically oriented,
most social science also entails an axiological dimension, requiring assumptions
about values. In fact, many of the seeds of postmodernism were planted in
pragmatism, which was a reaction against the claims of value-freedom in
positivism (Bloom, 1975; Bochner, 1985). Rorty (1982, p. 198) himself admits
that one reservation about positivistic science is that "it is not a good
vocabulary for moral reflection." The pragmatist claim is that positivism's push
for absolute facts left it in a position of inability to distinguish
"signification" and "significance" (Bloom, 1975). That is, the inquirer was able
to describe events and relationships, but make no claims about how we should
feel about such relationships.
Environmental journalism is a good place to become aware of the difficulties
that this poses. As noted by Bybee and Hacker earlier, positivism lead reporters
to see themselves as nothing more than fact-finders. The faults evident in such
a position are just as obvious as the faults in the subject-object distinction
mentioned earlier. One of the reasons for the flight from positivism was a
general recognition of the inability to completely detach fact from value, a
problem social scientists have struggled with this issue since Weber (Smith,
1989). Glasser (1992) claims that fact/value distinction is an equally thorny
issue in journalism and suggests that for journalists a flight from objectivity
(to postmodern thinking) is therefor warranted.
Yet just as a cautious attitude toward positivism does not require a leap to
postmodernist ontology, a cautious attitude toward positivism (or objectivity)
does not require a leap to postmodernist axiology. In the realm of environmental
news, such a move raises important issues. After all, Rortyan
antifoundationalism claims that nothing is inherently good or bad, right or
wrong, beautiful or ugly. Just as ontology is (for the extreme postmodernist)
merely the product of our discourse, value is as well. But environmental
reporting may require certain core values to proceed. Should we come to the
conclusion that there is nothing firm on which those values rest, the process of
reporting about the environment becomes moot.
The point is that a postmodern axiology is strongly anti-deontological. Ettema
and Glasser use Rorty to call for a sophisticated journalism where stories are
told with the ultimate goal being a series of discussions in which the world can
be created and recreated at will. In such a journalism there is no foundation
upon which these stories rest. Any attempt at imposing a metanarrative will
simply be met with redescription. There is nothing fundamentally good upon which
we can impose our duty. For example, in the interest of the environment, one
might suggest the importance of the great Hebrew narrative of the integrity of
creationDa narrative that suggests that at the end of each stage of creation God
stated that the created order was inherently good. Ettema and Glasser would
suggest that such a tale is open to endless redescription and is thus a dead
end. But must it be? And can any discussion of the environment continue without
some foundational elements? The irony here is that in the progression from
positivism to pragmatism to postmodernism values have seen differing degrees of
importance. In positivism, inquirers assumed that they could divorce themselves
from any values. In pragmatism, inquirers assumed they could use values as a
means of determining knowledge. In postmodernism, values disappear through
redescription. Many will disagree with Rorty and hold that redescription need
not be an endless gameDEttema mentions Habermas as representing this
alternativeDand suggest that communities of open discussion can reach consensus
on core values. The postmodern route does not allow for such a sanguine
solution, though. Recall that Lyotard sees any such consensus as violence
against heterogeneity. Clearly, this fear is a plea for absolute liberty and
equality. Schick (1992) summarizes Rorty in a similar way as a call for
"liberty, equality, and diversity." Rorty argues that if people are to be
completely free, we must reject the idea that any vocabulary is better than
another. And for people to be equal, we must do the same.
But here we come back to the persistent problem in our discussion. If there is
such a thing as extra-discursive reality, is diversity in such a venue the same
as diversity in social structure? The ironic twist here is that the term
diversity has been very popular in the biological sciences and environmental
reporting for some time. Used in those contexts, however, it does not refer to
lifestyle diversity among humans, but life diversity in the plant and animal
kingdoms. "Bio-diversity" refers to the number of species that are able to
survive in our world. One of the chief issues in recent writings on the
environment is the responsibility humans have for maintaining bio-diversity.
Does a Rortyan perspective leave any room for concern in this area? This is a
good question for future study. Though Krippendorf's (1989) perspective is
different from Rorty's his comments on the shortcomings of positivism are
By making an objective and observer-independent reality the principal
ruler over the constitution of scientific knowledge, this dominant
paradigm in effect absolves scientists from taking responsibility for
their own creations. (p. 78)
Whereas Krippendorf suggests that positivism removes culpability from social
theorists, those who wish to report about the environment need to ask if
postmodernism removes culpability from all theorists. If our perception is that
we can constantly recreate the world in our own image, we may feel that we have
no obligation to maintain the world as already created. In the move to
pragmatism and postmodernism the point is to make us aware of our role in
producing social structure and therefore be open to manifold changes therein. In
making this move, we may lose sight of a world which we did not create and fail
to ask ourselves how our actions affect it.
In the end, the broader philosophical issue of such a putative world is
crucial. Though beyond the scope of this paper, one must grapple with the
metaphysical issue of the existence of such and start inquiry from that point.
Pearce (1989, p. 202) rightfully suggests that the major distinction in
communication theory is no longer between positivism and critical communication
scholarship. It is between foundationalism and constructionism. The first camp
argues that we live in one world, the second that we live in multiple worlds. As
we have seen in this paper, journalists tend to borrow ideas from the academy,
and ideas from communication theory will soon make their way into the newsroom.
In the very near future journalists will be asked to grapple with this issue on
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