What if an article knew your assumptions and adjusted based on them?

One critical role for journalism is to challenge readers’ assumptions about how the world works, as well as to expose them to new values different than their own. At least sometimes.

Other times, readers legitimately simply want to get information, but what information counts as relevant will depend on one’s assumptions. That’s the point I tried to experiment with a few weeks back when I wrote a “Choose Your Own Adventure” about when Mitt Romney left Bain Capital.

The idea was that some people seemed to care quite a bit about the timing of his departure, others not at all. And which camp you ought to fall into depended on how you answer several separate questions. How do you feel about outsourcing? About private equity’s value? About management, ownership, and responsibility.

These are tough questions, and good journalism can help readers to make up their minds. But by structuring my piece in that way I hoped to make readers at least think through the logic behind the question at hand. Lots of anti-Romney folks will simply want to find in the Bain departure date a damning controversy. They should be made aware that taking that view commits them to certain other views.

I’m grateful to Brendan Nyhan for mentioning my piece in a post at Columbia Journalism Review, and hope the idea of assumptions and values will be raised more frequently when thinking about media design.

Consider, for instance, how the information needs of a utilitiarian and a libertarian (principled not pragmatic) differ. Say we’re discussing taxes. The utilitarian cares only about outcomes; how does this change human welfare through the distribution of wealth, its impact on growth, etc. The libertarian, depending on his or her strain, has to consider arguments about property rights and possibly about the impact on personal liberty from whatever the taxes get spent on.

Yes, utilitarians should be exposed to libertarian value arguments now and again, and vice versa. But realistically not every article is a chance to rethink core moral principles, nor should it be.

So an article about taxation that contains arguments about welfare and liberty could be altered to display the most relevant information first (or only) if the medium knew the readers’ assumptions. This happens informally as writers write for their audiences, but that’s a blunt measure.

Imagine if a site simply surveyed me on my values and then altered its content to provide me the information that was most relevant for me to reach policy conclusions based on them. It might sound kind of out there, but it wouldn’t be that hard to do in a day and age where we know so much about readers through social authentication.

Ideology, pragmatism and sacred values

Ezra Klein had a post this week titled “Obama’s budget is policy, not ideology” that contained this bit:

Obama’s budget is not philosophy…it is the product of a negotiation process, as opposed to an opening bid. It is, in other words, policy. You could argue that this is a philosophy, and that philosophy is pragmatism, but I think that’s getting too cute. This is the sort of policy that night pass and might work.

Ryan’s budget is purer, but it is also more fantastical. It posits the government it wishes were possible, and the policies it wishes would work. It is an opening bid so ideological that it leaves little room for a process of negotiation.

Krugman took issue with this general framing (not just by Ezra) in a post titled “Everyone Has An Ideology.” His basic point:

But I’d also like to register a philosophical protest. There’s an old joke to the effect that you’re an ideologue; I’m just being sensible. The point is that everyone has an ideology — which is another way of saying that everyone has (a) values and (b) some view about how the world works. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

As a philosophical matter I believe Krugman is correct. There is no policy without ideology/philosophy. Yet Ezra offers a relevant distinction between ideology and policy: the former ignores the prospects of an idea becoming law while the latter takes that into account.

Ezra’s distinction is potentially useful, and shows that we tend to define “ideology” and “ideological” in ways other than its purely philosophical designation. I want to offer my own definition of “ideological” in the context of modern politics and then tie it back to a previous post on how we identify values in political arguments.

How I think about ideology in modern politics

To me, a person is “ideological” to the extent that they place value on government’s role in a certain sphere of policy, on one side or another. For instance, if you place value on government not involving itself in the provision of healthcare, that makes you ideological. It may still be that once the facts are considered, you end up supporting a role for government, but your starting point places initial value on finding a solution that doesn’t require government. Your scales for considering the issue come pre-weighted against government involvement.

Or take the issue of taxation. If you place strong value on private property, you might approach taxation with the scales pre-weighted against raising rates; arguments in favor of more taxation thus have a higher bar to overcome. These values are perfectly legitimate; but I call them “ideological” because they approach one of the major questions of modern American politics, the appropriate role and scope of government, as at least partially a question of values. (This can occur on both left and right, though I tend to think the right is more likely to apply values to this particular question.)

It is in that sense that I believe Obama is truly a pragmatist. On the question of the scope of government he is likely to ask “what does the government do well, and what does it do poorly, relative to our other goals”, whereas a more ideological figure would ask “does government do x well enough/poorly enough to overcome our presumptive value for/against its involvement in this sphere”.

Identifying ideology

So what’s the point of all this? I wrote a post a while back on Exposing sacred arguments that touched on something similar. As I wrote then:

I see the identification of sacredness as a crucial challenge in the public sphere, and therefore a crucial challenge within media.

I want to use the definition of ideology that I’ve laid out to give a semi-concrete example of what I mean. Let’s assume that when it comes to healthcare, Obama is a pragmatist in the sense I’ve discussed. He’s worried about welfare, equality, etc. but approaches the question of the role of government in healthcare pragmatically. But does Paul Ryan approach that question in the same manner? Or is it possible that when considering the appropriate role of government in healthcare, Ryan’s scale comes pre-weighted, perhaps even just slightly, against government involvement. Perhaps limited government is a “sacred value”, in a Haidtian sense, to him and to his supporters.

If so, that’s something we, the public, should know. So how do we find out? One way is simply to get the facts straight. If we weigh the arguments on the unweighted scale, find the argument for government involvement compelling in that context, and then see Ryan still favoring less government, that might suggest the existence of a sacred value. So classic fact-checking and analysis can help us back into the identification of values.

But I wonder if we might also do some work on the opposite end, by identifying the values first. And I wonder whether that might help us back into our analysis of the issue. If we can identify up front that Ryan places inherent value on limited government (what I’m calling an ideological approach) then we can treat his arguments about the pragmatic merits a bit differently. Perhaps it means we are less likely to trust certain arguments of his. Perhaps we just bear in mind that in his view arguments against government involvement have a lower bar to clear. In any case, it’s something we want to know and something we may be able to use media to help uncover.