Every journalist should be an optimistic skeptic. This term may seem an oxymoron to some. It is credited to Phillip E. Tetlock, a Canadian-American political science writer, currently the Annenberg University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is cross-appointed at the Wharton School and the School of Arts and Sciences. He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 2019.
It is important for good journalists to be both curious and skeptical. It is also important that they be optimistic enough to be open to information and ideas that may seem a stretch to credulity.
We all know people who are so negative and closed minded that any concept that is out of thier norms is immediately discounted by them. Many good stories and ideas stop with them at that point. These people are unwilling to even entertain propositions that are new and different. Good journalists are open to unfamiliar theories and new takes on old ones.
As information and truth seekers, good journalists must also be skeptical of what they find and what is presented to them. ‘Prove it to me’ must be their credo, and confirmation by multiple, independent sources is what give editors confidence when publishing any story, especially controversial ones.
It has become more and more difficult to find optimistic skepticism anywhere in the plethora of electronic and print publications available to all of us all the time. To be sure, there are still some good journalists practicing in the national media, and you can find an abundance of reporters and editors in local media outlets that are optimistic skeptics. The stories they write and report often bubble up to the national media.
The growing problem is too many people who call themselves journalists are only skeptical of data and information coming from those sources with a differing political point of view from their own. On the other hand, these media people save their optimism for soures who’s beliefs mirror their own. They do not apply the same standard to all sources equally.
Unfortunately, this slanted reporting drives consumers to sources that only reflect their own views with no skepticism. Other consumers simply decide to believe nothing in the media and avoid news and information altogether.
Although it takes work, we must all take responsibility to find news sources that are optimistically skeptical. As frustrating as it may be, we all should take the time and effort to regularly read and watch news sources that contrast with our basic views, as well as taking in our favorites. And always, always question the sources for stories and the statistics, data and facts that are cited in them. This endevour can balance our thinking and help us make better decisions as we move through life.
To understand the fire hose of information coming at us each day, and be better citizens of this great country, we are obliged to ask ‘who says?’ and to become strong optimistic skeptics.