Fallacies in the Media

By Stoff, Rick | St. Louis Journalism Review, October-November 2008 | Go to article overview

Fallacies in the Media


Stoff, Rick, St. Louis Journalism Review


Trying to find logic in much of today's political discourse can cause headaches for those inclined to seek logic. It must be particularly painful for Thomas A. Hollihan, professor of communication at the University of Southern California Annenberg School.

Hollihan is co-author of the textbook "Arguments and Arguing: The Products and Process of Human Decision Making" (Waveland Press, 2005).

Chapter Nine of the book, "Refuting Arguments," contains a guide to 13 "fallacies of reasoning" that should render an argument "unsound," to put it nicely. Such fallacious arguments, however, can work quite effectively, even on news media that report fallacies as legitimate points of discussion.

"All of us are susceptible to fallacies," Hollihan said in an interview in the closing weeks of the 2008 election campaigns. "Yesterday I thought my head was going to explode most of the afternoon, listening to the convoluted explanations people were making for clearly strategic moves," he said

"We are not blank slates when we encounter argumentative situations," Hollihan said. "If arguments seem competitive with beliefs we hold true, it doesn't mean we set aside our beliefs. We are reluctant to create uncertainty by setting aside beliefs we already hold."

Some fallacies

Election campaigns are oozing the ever-popular ad hominem fallacy that the book defines as criticizing not an idea but rather the person presenting it.

In using the ad populum fallacy, a speaker attempts to prove a claim is correct not because it is really correct, but because most people believe it should be.

The tu quoque, meaning "you're another," defends one's actions by pointing out that others acted in a similar fashion.

The false dichotomy, irrationally makes an either/or argument, you're with us or against us.

Another is the straw man, in which one makes up a ridiculous position and attributes it to an opponent who, therefore, must be wrong.

People who study and teach in the field of argument recently have developed nuanced views of the classical fallacies, finding differing degrees of logic within some categories.

"The ad hominem argument stated that we shouldn't attack the person but the rigor and quality of the argument that person is advancing. Today we understand an attack on the person can be an attack on the character of the person, Hollihan."

An ad hominem attack aimed at Barack Obama questioned his character because he is "embedded in a Christian church with a scary minister." An ad hominem attack leveled at John McCain questioned the validity of his persona as a political maverick when his record actually reflects a typically Republican, anti-regulatory voting pattern. "Both could be considered ad hominem attacks," Hollihan said.

Fallacies get play in the media

"Because of sustained attack on them by conservatives, the news media have become increasingly reluctant to challenge political speakers who make fallacious statements. They give them the benefit of the doubt on the news pages and allow the analysis only to play out on the op-ed pages," Hollihan said.

Fallacies also work because much of the public is not well-informed, "Our media literacy is not very good. …

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