Forms of Objectivity

Excerpted from: How to Detect Media Bias and Propaganda Paul, Richard and Elder, Linda; The Foundation for Critical Thinking 2002

There are three ways in which “objectivity” may appear. Two are genuine. One is façade, a counterfeit of objectivity.

The Objectivity of Intellectual Humility. The first form of objectivity is based on the possibility of developing intellectual humility, knowledge of our ignorance. Thus, a critical consumer of the news knows the difference between hearing a story and verifying the truth of that story. A critical consumer of the news know that what is presented as fact in the news may not be fact, may be propaganda, misinformation, distortion, or half-truth. Knowing this, critical consumers of the news “bracket” what they hear, read, and see in the news. Recognizing they don’t themselves know the facts, they “suspend” belief. They take information in a tentative fashion (“This may or may not be true!”). For example, “objective” jurors will not come to a conclusion of guilt or innocence after hearing only one side’s case. Unfortunately, intellectual humility is a rare quality in human life. The majority of people in the world have been exposed to a limited range of views, and have been most influenced by the dominant cultural viewpoint. As a result they take themselves to be in possession of the TRUTH. This confidence is in fact proof of their lack of objectivity. They do not know what intellectual humility is, and they do not take steps to achieve it.

The Objectivity of Fair-minded Multi-dimensional Thinking. There is a second form of objectivity that goes beyond the first. It is based not only on intellectual humility, but also on having done substantial intellectual work in reasoning within multiple conflicting points of view in addressing questions, problems, or issues of significance. It is connected to positive insight into the complexity and many-sidedness existing in most important world issues and large-scale conflicts. Those who have achieved this state can insightfully role-play multiple perspectives on a multitude of issues. They can identify and weigh relative strengths and weaknesses within those perspectives. They are comfortable playing the role of dissenter, though they never dissent for the sake of dissent. They reject party lines, sociocentric mind-sets, and intellectual conformity. They are intellectually independent, intellectually perseverant, and have a high degree of intellectual integrity.

Sophistic Objectivity. The third form of objectivity is “sophistic.” This intellectual state results from studying a range of views with the overriding motivation to defend a pre-determined choice. This mind-set is common in those intellectuals who make their income (and achieve their prestige) as apologists for powerful interests. The temptation to become an apologist for a well-established point of view or economic interest is enormous since money, position, and prestige are involved. Lawyers and politicians, as well as public relations experts, are typically ready to play such a role. Most national news commentators routinely play such a role. They present positions consistent with a picture of the world shared by a large majority of their readers and viewers.

They are viewed by their audience as “objective” only to the extent that what they present reflects mainstream views.

The Perception of Bias in the Mainstream. Quite naturally, but uncritically, people think of those who agree with them as being objective and those who disagree with them as being biased. Thus, if news commentators present mainstream views with a liberal spin, they are viewed as “objective” only by the liberals in the audience. If mainstream views are given a conservative spin, they are viewed as “objective” only by the conservatives in their audience. The media therefore present liberal or conservative slants on the news in accordance with their audience’s views.


“There are (typically) multiple points of view from which any set of events can be viewed and interpreted. Openness to a range of insights from multiple points of view and a willingness to question one’s own point of view are crucial to “objectivity.” […] Objectivity is achieved to the extent that one has studied a wide range of perspectives relevant to an issue, obtained insights from all of them, seen weaknesses and partiality in each, and integrated what one has learned into a more comprehensive, many-sided whole. Each should serve to “correct” exaggerations or distortions in the others and to add facts not highlighted in the others.”

~Richard Paul and Linda Elder, “The Thinkers Guide For Conscientious Citizen’s in How to Detect Media Bias & Propaganda