The Bias of Objectivity

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.” So they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it.

In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, he said “This being is like a thick snake.”

For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, he thought the elephant was a pillar like a tree-trunk.

The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant “is a wall.” Another who felt its tail described it as a rope.

The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth, and like a spear.

Few words in journalism and punditry are as loaded as the word “objective.”

Recently, political writer and conservative pundit Ben Shapiro abruptly ended an interview on the BBC after complaining that his interviewer (noted British Conservative Andrew Neil) was a liberal hack and wasn’t practicing objective journalism.  Shapiro’s fixation on his subjective view of objective questioning derailed the entire interview and made him look foolish.

Still image from the botched May BBC interview of Ben Shapiro.

Bias, Bias Everywhere

Put simply: if it’s created by humans, it has bias.  Language, pictures, documentaries – none of it is exempt.  Granted, varying degrees of bias exist among journalists, commentators, and pundits, but any claim of zero bias, of pure objectivity, is just dishonest.

Similar to any media outlet touting the word “Truth” extensively, pundits who harp on objectivity rarely have a genuine interest in the word – only the perceived credibility that comes with it.  They tend to just want their viewers or readers to see bias everywhere else. One media source is “Fair and Balanced” while every other media source is too biased for their captive audience.

A conservative constituent of Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich) recently said, in reference to what she’s heard about the Mueller investigation that:

“I’ve mainly listened to conservative news and I hadn’t heard anything negative about that report and President Trump has been exonerated.”

This is, of course, in stark contrast to what Mueller himself has said.

Liberals, on the other hand, were baffled by the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s rise in 2016 and their media of choice didn’t give them any clear ways to understand his popularity beyond racism, sexism, and general xenophobia.  While all of these were unquestionably at play in a portion of his support, failing to understand the bigger picture was a blatant political handicap.

Beyond Omission

Events occur in some objective sense and while certain data can be considered objective (i.e. number of dead, actuarial value of property loss, vote margins), the way those data are selected, interpreted, and presented cannot be.  But omitting or cherry-picking are just scratching the surface.

Bias is often more about exactly how data are presented than what is presented.

In 2017, Illinois increased its income tax rate to help solve the state’s financial problems. Whether this was the correct solution to the problem has been an ongoing debate. The following is the opening paragraph of an article condemning the increase a year later:

One year ago on July 6, Illinois lawmakers voted to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a record-setting $5 billion permanent income tax hike. Individual tax rates rose to 4.95 percent from 3.75 percent, and corporate taxes jumped to 7 percent from 5.25 percent. That’s a 32 percent and 33 percent tax hike, respectively.

Everything in this paragraph is true. Yet you could write a paragraph with the same, equally true information to say:

One year ago on July 6, Illinois lawmakers overturned Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto on the income tax increase enacted to address the state’s financial crisis. The corporate tax rate rose from 5.25 to 7 percent, five percent lower than the corporate tax rate in neighboring Iowa, and  the individual rate rose from 3.75 to 4.95 percent, still lower than top individual rates in every neighboring state except Indiana; with corporations seeing half a percent higher increase than individuals.

The second paragraph isn’t any more or less ‘true’ in a cosmic, objective sense. Yet, the two convey very different ideas.

Herein lies the major issue with objectivity: those peddling ‘objective facts’ always bring their biases along for the ride. The two work symbiotically: the universe doesn’t present information to readers and viewers, an individual with subjective biases does. This doesn’t always have to be sinister, or even purposeful. Unfortunately, no matter how hard a journalist, commentator, or pundit may try, biases are inevitable.

Rational Reconstruction

We can start to identify and decode bias by digging a little deeper into why it’s inevitable in all consumable media. Critical theorist Jürgen Habermas discussed a process he called “Rational Reconstruction” within his linguistic theory of Universal Pragmatics.  

Habermas makes the distinction between an experience and its understanding. In other words, the happening of an event and the understanding of its happening are two distinct things.  If two people experience the same event, the event will be understood in two different ways.

For a recent example, when a Kentucky high school student allegedly harassed a Native American protestor, we were all encouraged by conservative Blue Checks on Twitter to watch the entire video before making judgments; a noble, but futile suggestion…

When the phrase “MAGA kids” and the photo of the smirk seen ‘round the world has already been circulated among our media silos, each of our minds made an assumption. Our interpretation of the raw video was already affected by our own personal biases. And once we communicated what we saw with others, the original event already had three levels of interpretation on it (the journalist’s, ours, and the person we shared the story with).

Another example, and an all-too-common occurrence: a news report of a police officer shooting a black man fuels anger on the left for a system that in their view, yet again, resulted in the death of an innocent black man at the hands of an oppressor given too much power. On the right, there’s the perception that a police officer is doing his job – protecting us from criminals – and a fear that a reactionary public is trying to strip officers tasked with defending us of the authority they need to do so.

Of course, more facts and details of the story might eventually come out, proving either of those narratives true in that given case. Or they might not. It’s a rare story where all the facts are unearthed with clarity and certainty. Of course, that never stops the public from taking a view with firm certainty. That view is, not surprisingly, most often aligned with the observer’s biases.

What’s more, I fear that the current obsession with perceived objectivity and the conveyed legitimacy that comes with it put an unrealistic expectation on journalists who, ultimately, cater to the biases of their readers.  Perhaps it isn’t the news media with the bias problem. Maybe the phone call is coming from inside the house.

Triangulation of Sources

The best way to handle both the media’s biases and our own is to expect it, to accept it, and then to address it. It doesn’t make us or the organization wrong, just human. If we grow to accept bias and to understand how it affects our behavior, how it changes the way we perceive objective information, and how it limits the media we consume, we can start to ask effective questions about a given event prior to drawing conclusions.

Only then can we begin to properly assess our own biases and the biases being presented to us. The real danger comes not when we’re consuming something with a subjective angle, but when we’re consuming it convinced it’s an objective, universal truth.

One powerful tool that should be a mainstay in our arsenal is triangulation. The process is quite simple: if we identify a source’s bias, and we assume it’s at play in a given article, we can see how the same event is depicted elsewhere and compare the details. If some sources add details to the story left out by the others, then we can ask more questions. This process helps illustrate the utility in getting our information from a variety of sources.  Instead of relying on a single source for news, we can piece together different takes from different angles to get to the story more fully.

This is why Newsspeak strives to present competing viewpoints in its Opinion sections, but it shouldn’t stop there.  We would never ask you to consume only our media.  If any outlet is singing that tune, it should be a clear red flag.  Just what are they trying to hide from you?

We can illustrate triangulation at work in a salient, modern application: the Netflix hit “Making a Murderer.”  In the two season docuseries, the story of Steven Avery’s supposedly wrongful murder conviction presents a story of police incompetence and corruption.

Initially, it’s easy to sympathize with Avery and to come away with the conviction that he was framed. But if you seek additional sources outside of the docuseries, you will see that substantial evidence was left out of season 1. Particularly, Avery’s “stalkerish” behavior and multiple contacts with Teresa prior to her murder color the rest of the story in a way that makes alternative theories incredibly implausible. Further, in Season 2, the evidence excluded from season 1 provides a template for how Avery may have actually carried out the murder instead of the bungled, unnecessary way the Manitowoc police manipulated evidence to convict Avery in the first place (which will likely exonerate him).

No media is above reproach and no media is without bias. This, of course, includes articles published on Newsspeak.  Ultimately, as readers, we choose what media we consume and often, it already aligns with our own beliefs, a selection bias. Our vigilance in navigating bias (both the media’s and our own) helps us stay sane in this era of growing bias through filter bubbles. So, if you regularly read more liberal news outlets, venture over to see what conservative news sites like Reason or National Review say about the same story, or to see what they’re talking about that your typical bubble is ignoring.

More importantly, begin with the assumption that the bias is in good faith and that these people that disagree with you aren’t completely corrupt or stupid – they have something to teach you, even if you don’t ultimately change your mind.

A little cognitive dissonance is good for you.