Fallacies in the logic of the rhetoric used by journalists tends to not only manipulate the public but also leads to losing our entire credibility, regardless of whether those fallacies were intentional or not
In our day-to-day lives, we have come a long way from battling each other for various things with brute force. It is no longer a question of who holds the bigger stick. It is our conversations – our ability to debate with one another – that shapes the outcome of our confrontations. Civilization is on the tip of the tongue, as they say.
But these supposedly civilized debates we use in our day-to-day conversations in no way make us less aggressive, when the situation calls for it. We use rhetoric, arguments, truths or lies to render our position valid. So in service to this new form of war, we turned to fallacies.
Let me start by explaining a fallacy. In Turkish we use the word "yanılgı" or "safsata" for fallacies. But those words come with a mistaken understanding, and they are commonlyunderstood simply to mean wrong. But fallacies are more than that. A fallacy is "the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning or 'wrong moves' in the construction of an argument."
This faulty reasoning stems from people not using their discernments when it counts, and this error largely sits in the field of the science of logic. Do not mistake fallacy with false ideologies or absurd nonsense stories. They are the results that can be reached by putting the aforementioned fallacies to use.
Before giving examples of these fallacies, let me explain the reason why I chose it as the week's subject:
Unfortunately, fallacies tend to be one of the common mistakes we encounter when reading a newspaper. Especially attentive readers express their displeasure when they encounter these fallacies. But the main problem with fallacies is that usually they look pretty convincing, especially for people who aren't well versed in them. Sometimes, we even see that some fallacies point in the right direction, while contaminating the process that is necessary to reach a valid conclusion.
One of the most common fallacies we see in the media is confirmation bias. We see it when reporters or editors approach a story with a preexisting set of beliefs or framework. At that point, either consciously or not, they start to interpret the presented information to fit their preexisting framework, even if necessary, by grasping at straws.
This fallacy also coincides with the fallacy of the false cause. To act on the confirmation bias, we can encounter journalists who try to use the false cause fallacy, or by its Latin name "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" by drawing a false cause-and-effect relationship. Here is a crude example for the ease of understanding:
"Since hair always precedes the growth of teeth in babies, the growth of hair causes the growth of teeth."
Another common fallacy is to confuse fact with opinion. When comparing Turkish media with its Western counterparts, one of the first things that might capture a reader's attention is that Turkish journalism tends to go a little bit heavier with opinion journalism. But this fallacy isn't about this precisely. After all, examples of opinion journalism, such as columns or editorials, advertise the fact that they are opinions. But when it comes to regular news stories where readers might expect some objectivity, this fallacy comes into play. By interjecting little bits of subjectivity into the facts of the story, a reader can easily be confused. Especially if there were no clear lines separating one from the other.
Papers are not alone
Printed media aren't alone in using fallacies, of course. Loaded questions are another, a fallacy that we see more commonly on the television side of things. These are questions that already establish themselves on unconfirmed events or opinions. For example, when a person is suspected of theft but it isn't in any way proved, a reporter may ask, "Did you steal the money?" But if the reporter asks, "What did you do with the money you stole?" They would have committed the fallacy of loaded questions, by implying the charge is true. Another fallacy that we have lately encountered in the media is the argumentum ad passions, or the fallacy of an appeal to emotion. Usually in the absence of necessary proof, this fallacy surfaces to stir or manipulate the emotions of readers. I believe we can split this fallacy into two categories. First, we have a more benign option here. To encourage aid, calm the public or strengthen solidarity, appealing to the emotions of the readers can have a positive effect.
I'm afraid the second category is in a stark contrast. By amplifying the effects and aftermath of a terror attack or natural disaster, journalists or media organizations can serve other agendas, such as aiding the said terrorism campaigns.
A guide for detecting fallacies
Regardless of whether it is committed intentionally or not, a fallacy can have a basic set of reasons manifest in an argument. Bias, sentiment, rashness and negligence are among the leading causes. Exaggerated generalizations, irrelevant references or bigotry can also be counted among these. It can even be as simple as ignorance, since one can commit fallacies because he or she isn't familiar enough with the language or the subject at hand.
Lastly, there is the good old fallacy of appeal-to-authority. Nowadays, we see TV programs based on this premise. Don't get me wrong though, expert opinion is important and sharing that with the public will probably help, depending on the situation, but in the end it is an expert opinion. It is important to underline that. And that is if the subject isn't controversial. If that is the case, the situation calls for two sets of experts and a moderator to control the flow of the debate. But instead of that, now we see programs that settle upon one rhetorical position, and even if they ask someone from another camp, it is usually for them to offer weak opposition and only refute some of the main authority's points, while in general agreeing wholesale with their views.
While English sources and studies on fallacies are numerous and sufficient, one of the most comprehensive studies made on the subject in Turkish was prepared by Alev Alatlı and her students, "Safsata Kılavuzu" (Fallacy Guide) which is a study that I would recommend as a starting point for Turkish colleagues.
In the end, it is clear that both in Turkey and in the world logic and logical fallacies must become an important part of journalism education as well as practice. Even looking at the examples of fallacies above and how commonplace they have become in the media, to the point where we become numb to them, shows the need for action on this before it's too late.