Objectivity and neutrality

There's a misunderstanding that objectivity and neutrality is the same thing. The only meaningful definition of objectivity is to strive towards the truth. (This assumes you believe there exists an objective truth independent of subjective experience to strive for). Reaching this truth is difficult. In fact, it's impossible, which is why objectivity is not to simply drop all our biases and uncover the truth. It would be nice if we could be we can't. We're not mentally equipped for the task. Objectivity is rather to try to drop our biases, to strive towards the truth. We will never get there, and we must not forget that, but we can always get closer. Paradoxically, this means that objectivity can lead two people to different conclusions. But it also means that one of them will be more wrong than the other.

Neutrality is an opposite of this. One common way to be neutral on an issue is to simply pick the view that is least offensive to the most people. This isn't very hard, (in fact we do it almost automatically through the Golden Mean fallacy), and it usually doesn't lead you anywhere really nasty. But the truth itself is not involved, only your relationship to other people's idea of truth. If they move their truth, you must also move yours.

Another common way to be neutral is not to pick a view at all. When asked, you may reply that "Some people believe the earth is round, other that it is flat. I suppose they both could be right, how should I know?" This is seductive because it's considered morally superior to fighting things out in the mud with the biased, arrogant, flawed, real truth seekers. But it's also the complete absence of striving towards truth. It's as far from objectivity as you can go without actually trying to lie.

Journalists are particularly prone to this, as in this NTB report about the predictably critical statements Syria's president Bashar al-Assad made about Israel yesterday:

Peace is more remote than ever, believes Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, who accuses Israel of racism in its policy towards Palestinians. .. - Instead of going the way of peace, the Israeli government has stepped up its policy of oppression against the Palestinian people, by bombing their houses and liquidating them, said Assad Monday.

Israel, which since 1967 has occupied the Syrian Golan heights, accuses the Assad regime of supporting militant Palestinian groups, and earlier this month bombed what it claimed to be a Palestinian terrorist camp. Syria has rejected the charges, and so has the Palestinian group the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC) which was the target of the attack. According to the PFLP-GC, which is led by Ahmad Jibril, the camp had been abandoned by them, but was populated by several Palestinian refugee families.

The American Congress decided last week to introduce sanctions against Syria, which it claims has connections to terrorist groups and tries to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Syria says .. but Israel says .. but .. This is so neutral as to be almost without meaning. There's nothing exceptional about this article - a million like it are spewed out every day by media that like to call themselve objective - but it has to be pointed out all the same, for those who will listen: To use the "A says, but B says" style for an article about Syria is bizarre. Syria is a repressive, aggressive dictatorship that sponsors terrorism. Perhaps its only redeeming feature compared to Saddam Hussein's Iraq is that its leader appears to be sane. Israel is a democracy with democratic institutions that - like ours - are designed to limit the government's ability to lie and abuse its powers. The only thing that binds Syria to tell the truth is the conscience of its leaders. We can't trust everything any political leader says, but we can trust Israel much more than Syria. Any objective story would take that into account. Any objective story would point out that Syria is ruthless and unreliable, that it has its own occupation going on in Lebanon, that it really does support terrorists, and that it has several times gone to war against Israel, which places its concerns about peace in perspective. (Everyone always wants peace, it's the conditions they disagree on.) None of this is mentioned here.

We could blame this on anti-Israelism. Perhaps the writer believes that the flaws of Israel outweigh the flaws of Syria, so that they're both equally unreliable. This is no doubt a factor. But notice that no attempt is made to find the truth, only to recount what both sides are saying. If both sides are considered equally untrustworthy, why doesn't the writer make a case for that? No, the problem is neutral reporting. The problem is an unwillingness to even try to enlighten NTB's readers about the situation in the Middle East, either because of laziness, incompetence, or a mistaken belief that this would be punditry, and that neutrality is the only form of objectivity. The result is to leave the readers confused and misinformed. Even deeply flawed (ie. biased) objective reporting is better than this.


Bjorn, I completely agree with your analysis on the difference between objectivity and nuetrality.

Unmentioned by most media outlets was that Syria refused to allow the media access to bombed site. If it actually was as the Syrians insist a camp for Palestinian refugee families, the media would have been granted access immediately. Not allowing the media access to the site confirms Israel's view that it was both a weapons depot and training base.

I totally agree with you. We can never be 100% objective. But that doesn't mean, as many professors in Western Universities seem to think these days, that we should abandon objectivity as an ideal.

Another fallacy that plays into this is "balance." If the truth is the average between two extremes, then there is every incentive for a dishonest person to depict an extreme picture, such as:

"The suffering of the Palestinians is unequalled in our era"

"In Jenin, thousands of unarmed civilians were massacred by the Israeli army."


Leif: Yes, that's what I mean by the golden mean fallacy. Set up an extreme view as the official "other" point of view, and count on outsiders to land in the middle. It's a variation on Hitler's Big Lie. The sad thing is it works.

The Norwegian wire service NTB, where I worked for 15 years, has gradually moved to a strongly anti-israeli position in its coverage of The Middle East. Most, but of course not all reporters there, obviously believe that the conflict, is the result of Israel's misdeeds, if not its mere presence.
On September 12 this year, NTB bias was displayed in the following fashion:
"Jerusalem (NTB-Reuters): Israeli police has stormed the Temple Mount in Jerusalem after angry Palestinians threw stones at Jews praying by the Wailing Wall....
Two of the Mulims' holiest mosques, al-Aqsa and the Dome on the Rock, are situated at the Mount, where the Jews believe a Jewish temple stood before the mosques were built..."
Reuters may have put it exactly like this, in which case also they now chose to reflect Yasser Arafat's position at Camp David in 2000; there (probably) was no Temple in Jersualem.

I may have heard the Golden Mean Fallacy by another name - the 'Grey Fallacy'. Probably the simplest way of saying it: "If one side says something is black, and the other side says it's white, most people assume that it's actually grey"

I am not neutral or objective but I know that Syria tried to destroy (with the help of other Arab nations) Israel in '67 war and that Israel seized the high ground--Syrian's used their spot there to fire down on Israel...and since Syria still does not negotiate, what have they to bitch about with a loss of land? In addition: Syhria has 30 thousand troops occupying Lebanon, Syria allows Hizbullah to use land Syria control in Lebanon; Syria is now accused of being the storage bin for WMD from Iraq (reports from US this week), Syria is a terror state and many muslims from Syria go into Iraq to confront US and other forces there, etc etc..so pardon my saying, in the best philosphical langue: The Syhrians are full of Shit when they accuse Israel of this and that.

It seems odd that you would claim we can *never* achieve the truth. When I say that 2 + 1 = 3, am I not stating an objective truth? This may seem like a rather trite victory for objectivity, but it is a starting point. When dealing with more complex issues, usually those involving people, however, it seems that we can still make objectively true statements. Perhaps this will be more difficult than in the case of simple addition, but that is hardly a reason to claim that the objective truth is always out of our grasp. You can't advocate the idea that the objective truth is always out of our grasp without argument as you do in your article.

Hi Bjørn and others,

Saw the reference to this "Objectivity and neutrality" post on a blog to which it has more than passing relevance -- brainysmurf.org, a member of the China blogosphere.

Fascinatingly, brainysmurf and other bloggers in the world's greatest information-censoring regime, while indignant about government censorship, have a remarkable propensity to practice censorship themselves. See China Bloggers: Truth Above All ... but Community First .

Your description of "neutrality" brought to mind another of the China blogosphere greats -- Joe Bosco: "As a journalist and professor I believe and teach if you aren't pissing off both sides of an issue you probably aren't doing your job." (Quote from comments at http://www.josephbosco.com/2004/07/china-will-go-to-war-if-taiwan.html .) More about Bosco at Joe Bosco, Blogger .

Bjorn, I hope I have Your Name Right:

My Name is Mario G. Nitrini 111. I was Personally involved in The OJ Simpson Case. I see that Joseph Bosco was mentioned in this Blog.

I met Twice, Face-to-Face with Mr Bosco. Once in 1997 and once in 1998. He Wrote a Book "A Problem of Evidence." The Book was about His view of the Outcome of The OJ Simpson Case and More.

Mr Bosco, on His LongBow Papers, DELIBERATLY Lied about Me, making a sweeping statement that I "Wasn't there" meaning The OJ Simpson Case.

Bill Wasz, who was found Dead (Murdered) in His Apartment in Mid-March 2005 of this Year, claimed in His Book (Bill's), "We Only Kill Our Friends," that Mr Bosco was a "Blocker" for Bill in a BLACK TAR HEROIN Smuggling Transaction. Now Bjorn, understand this, Joseph Bosco has Claimed on His LongBow Papers Website, that Bill Wasz was one of His Best friends, and Checked out 100% in what He Says about His (Bill's) participation in The OJ Simpson Case and More.

You can check it Out for Yourself about Me, Bill Wasz, Joseph Bosco, and More by Just doing a search Engine on Google, Yahoo, or ANY other search engine. Just Click on our names.

Check Out the July Discussion 2005 on Smartfellows Press (IAGO), and The March 2005 Discussion. Joseph Bosco Posts Several Times in Both Months. It's Something Else.

Thanks Bjorn, I hope I did this right with Your name,

Mario G. Nitrini 111


Trackback URL: /cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/474

Sebastian Holsclaw: Objectivity and Neutrality, October 24, 2003 09:07 AM

As usual Bjørn Stærk has some excellent insight on his Norwegian blog. His article on Objectivity and Neutrality contrasts the two positions. He explains that objectivity is about striving for the truth. It is an often difficult attempt to overcome...

Post a comment

Comments on posts from the old Movable Type blog has been disabled.