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Objectivity and the News: A Conversation with Ben Bayer and Greg Salmieri

 

“Some people follow the news as if it were sports. They have a team that they want to root for, they join the team, and any time a cheerleader calls out a cheer, they join in.” This attitude is fine in sports where the outcome doesn’t substantially impact your life, explained Dr. Benjamin Bayer, a professor of philosophy and the author of a recent series of articles on developing a ‘critical nose’ for news. But this sports mentality is a problem in politics where the outcome does have a substantial impact.

As part of STRIVE’s most recent Objectivism Q&A, Dr. Bayer joined Dr. Gregory Salmieri, co-editor with Allan Gotthelf of A Companion to Ayn Rand, to answer questions about the news, the media, and the responsibilities of readers and journalists. One such question concerned the difference between objectivity and bias as a reader of the news.

Dr. Salmieri described bias as our tendency to selectively attend to or find significant that which confirms or aligns with what we already believe. Our tendency toward bias, he argued, is what makes thinking objectively necessary. “Objectivity is volitionally and by choice finding and employing the methods you need to get at what’s true because you don’t automatically get at what’s true. It requires effort.”

Dr. Bayer also noted that bias is often incorrectly equated with individual opinion. The common notion that ‘everyone is biased’ is, he warned, dangerously subjective. “The mere fact that you have a viewpoint does not necessarily make your conclusion non-objective unless you assume that philosophy is by its nature subjective and you have no way of attaining the truth.”

Another student asked about objectivity in journalism. In particular, how does one cover a controversy? Is it always necessary for a journalist to report on both sides impartially?

Dr. Bayer explained that there are certainly cases where an entirely impartial report is a requirement of objectivity, but that this is not always the case. For example, if there is a debate about whether the earth is round or flat, it may be appropriate for a journalist reporting on it to weigh in critically against the flat-earth theory. Writing critically about flat-earth theory is appropriate because there are concrete, empirical observations that we can make on our own to find out that the earth is round.

However, if there is a debate that involves a controversy in an area of expertise and neither the journalist nor his intended audience is an expert in that field, it would likely be improper to weigh in. Substantiating the existence, cause, and effects of global warming, for instance, requires specialized knowledge in the field of climatology.

Dr. Salmieri later proposed that this difference is actually what makes something a ‘legitimate’ or an ‘illegitimate’ controversy. Thus, the climate-change debate might be considered legitimate regardless of where one stands on the issue, whereas a debate about the shape of the earth could appropriately be dismissed.

Social media as a source of information was also discussed. One student wondered whether or not getting your news from social media prevents you from getting an objective picture of what is going on in the world.

Dr. Bayer acknowledged that, through social media, you tend to get only one side of any story based on the friends you have. He recommended using an RSS feed to subscribe to two or three different reputable news sources with varying ideological leanings. That way you will see everything they publish, not merely what is most popular or most liked and shared by your friends.

Dr. Salmieri also mentioned that much of the so-called news that is shared on social media is often what he called outrage-porn: a news story that is slanted to stir up outrage in the reader. To avoid this sort of biased reporting, he recommended directly following news sources on social media that you know to be reputable, and unfollowing or staying away from sources that present themselves as providing news but are actually geared towards inciting certain emotions in the reader.

STRIVE’s next Objectivism Q&A will explore the topic of psychology, featuring psychologist Dr. Gena Gorlin alongside Dr. Salmieri. We highly encourage you to tune in and join the discussion on Sunday, April 23rd, from 4:30 – 6:00 pm PDT. Be sure to register here and submit your questions in advance!

Creative commons licensed image courtesy of Flickr user Rik Lomas.

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