PHL101: Critical Thinking, Reports
Review and Overview
- We have looked at observation, argument, and theory.
- When you are confronted with a claim, you should
ask if it is an observation, the conclusion of an argument,
or the product of a theory. In each case, apply the standards
that you have learned: was the observation and the interpretation
of the observation made in a reliable way? Is the argument
valid? Does the theory meet the standards of scientific theory
and is it superior to the alternative theories?
- Sometimes, however, we encounter simple claims without
any insight into how they were generated. We will call these
- We do not have clear standards to evaluate reports,
whereas we did have clear standards for observations,
arguments, or scientific theories.
- Since our only insight into the likely truth of reports
is the reliability of the outlet (e.g., the media company)
giving the report, we are forced to evaluate the reliability
of such outlets.
- I will offer a series of hypotheses about the most common
types of reports that you are likely to hear in our culture in
our time: reports from major media corporations. These
hypotheses are intended to be of a kind that should in
principle be evaluated by scientific method. Thus, you should
skeptically evaluate my hypotheses with this in mind. You may
not agree with me; in that case, you should be willing to
offer yourself a better hypothesis (using our criteria of the
Deductive Nomological Method and of theory comparison).
7 Hypotheses about Contemporary Reports
- Media consolidation exacerbates the effect of biases
by limiting perspectives on contemporary issues. Over the
last several decades the number of media corporations
controlling most media has shrunk from dozens to six. At the
very least, it appears statistically likely that 6 outlets
will have fewer perspectives, and offer fewer alternative
hypotheses about world events, than would more outlets.
- Consolidated corporate media is led by a small group
of corporate executives with shared interests among large
corporations. For example, the ten largest media
corporations have 118 board members who also sit on boards of
288 large corporations; source:
Thornton, Walton, and Rouse. Given that a very small
number of people are holding leadership positions in both
communities, it is plausible that they have shared interests
which may influence reporting.
- Corporations have a significant and increasing control
over content in the mass media through their advertising.
Such control is becoming increasingly direct, including now
some advertisers demanding the right to review articles about
them and their products. (Example: BP's policy, which is
describe in Advertising Age, as summarized here by PR Watch.) This
is pluasibly a very powerful pressure against critical reporting
on such advertisers.
- Channel and distribution consolidation limit and
reduce the dissemination of alternative hypotheses about
contemporary issues. Examples include the refusal of
corporations to air advertising critical of their views, of
Cumulus Media refusing to play Dixie Chicks; Walmart
pulling Sheryl Crow records, etc. When few channels exist
and they are willing to halt distribution of hypotheses and
observations that they dislike, they have the power to limit
access to alternative hypotheses.
- Media cost reductions exacerbate the effect of biases by
limiting reporting. This increases demand for pre-packaged
content (like PR press releases) and reduces the possibility
of alternative hypotheses being investigated since these
require more investigation.
- The demands on reporters to maintain access to sources
and news makers causes more favorable reporting on
subjects. If your job depends upon having access to famous
or powerful people, and if you will lose that access if you
offend those poeple, then you may be inclined not to offend
- The limitations of time in a debate reinforce commonly
repeated claims and reduce the opportunity for significant
alternative hypotheses. In a short amount of time, the
only claims that can be made and which will appear reasonable
are those which have the status of popular belief.
Controversial claims by definition need a defense, but
insufficient time is given to allow such a defense. The
result is that time limitations on reporting create accepted
opinions and then act as a very significant form of positive
reinforcement for accepted opinions.