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Assessing the rationality of argumentation in media discourse and public opinion: An exploratory study of the conflict over a smoke-free law in Ticino

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This article holds that ability to support one’s opinions with arguments, awareness of the arguments for other opinions, and insight into the superiority of some arguments are basic requirements for rational discourse. Based on a content analysis of Swiss Italian newspaper coverage of a controversy over a smoke-free law introduced and finally implemented in the canton of Ticino in 2007 and on a five-wave panel survey of public opinion on the issue, the article describes elements of the argumentative structure of news coverage of this issue and relates them to rationality requirements. It finds that the newspapers offered a wide variety of arguments to readers (articulation function) when political activity to introduce a ban intensified, and especially when arguments mattered as a referendum approached. Papers displayed a reasonable and differentiated picture of arguments, contributing to a unique pattern of weighting and evaluating them. Neither newspaper coverage nor public opinion showed much sign of change, which speaks against a reaction to superior arguments. Finally, the newspaper bias towards arguments for the ban and their inclination to publish objections to arguments against may have contributed to a widespread lack of awareness of arguments against the ban among people favouring it. Thus, evidence of the rationality of argumentative structures is mixed, and further enquiry into this subject is encouraged.
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Keywords: argumentation; newspaper coverage; public opinion; rationality; smoke-free legislation; smoking ban

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Lugano

Publication date: May 21, 2012

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  • Empedocles aims to provide a publication and discussion platform for those working at the interface of philosophy and the study of communication, in all its aspects. This Journal is published in cooperation with the Section for the Philosophy of Communication of ECREA, the European Communication Reserach and Education Association.
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