Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines. The following originally appeared on The Conversation. As part of its collaboration with “Third Rail with OZY,” The Conversation asked scholars from a variety of disciplines to answer the question: “Is truth overrated?”
Objectivity and truth in the fake news era
Maryanne Reed, West Virginia University
Seek the truth and minimize harm. That’s how we instruct young journalists to prepare for the profession. Until recently, factual, objective reporting has been the mantra of modern journalism. But is objectivity a relevant concept in the era of fake news, filter bubbles and alternative facts?
In dealing with a less-than-truthful presidential administration, mainstream media has become more adversarial. News articles and broadcasts sound like editorials, with journalists labeling President Trump a “liar” and warning citizens about what they describe as dangerous tilt toward fascism. The masthead of the venerable Washington Post now says, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” a strongly worded statement reflected in its sharply critical coverage of the Trump presidency.
It may be time for a recalibration of the notion of objectivity. In recent years, the concept has been watered down by the practice of “balanced” reporting. Each side is given equal time, regardless of the relative merit of their arguments, creating false equivalencies and confusing the public.
Perhaps, journalists should apply their craft using a more scientific approach. Scientists, too, seek the truth. But they pursue evidence based solutions, regardless of TV ratings, circulation numbers or social media “likes.”
Journalism could adopt a similar approach as it struggles to regain its relevance. The best way forward is not necessarily a return to objectivity. Rather, it is through a rigorous approach to seeking and telling the truth — one that relies on real facts and the preponderance of evidence. Our profession and our democracy depend on it.
Maryanne Reed is the dean of the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University.
Politicians lie; democracy needs truth
Christopher Beem, Penn State University
Last month, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker published an updated accounting of all the false and misleading claims made by President Donald Trump since he assumed office: 1,057, an average of five per day.
That is, to be sure, a big number. But does it really matter? George Orwell famously said, “political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Orwell speaks for most of us: To be a politician is to lie. And therefore many will ask: Five times a day, or 25 — What difference, really, does it make?
Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher and a Jew who escaped Hitler’s Germany and settled in New York. In her essay, “Truth and Politics,” she asked this very question. She argued that democratic society requires that we agree on two things. First, that there are such things as facts. And second, that we should strive to present those facts as best we understand them. In other words, we should try to tell the truth.
Why? Because the more a politician — like the president, for example — fails to live up to these agreements, the more difficult it becomes for the rest of us to agree with, dispute or even assess what he says. When this happens, debate becomes increasingly pointless. And at some point, democracy itself is imperiled.
If Arendt is right, then lies do matter. Especially now, telling the truth is a deeply political act.
Christopher Beem is the managing director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University.
The label ‘anti-science’
Troy Campbell, University of Oregon
Today, a person who denies climate change or any fact agreed upon by the scientific community is often immediately labeled “anti-science.” However, people who deny individual scientific facts may be more friendly toward science than we think.
A 2015 Pew Research poll found that 79 percent of Americans felt that “science had made life easier for most people.”
When, how and why science is denied, ignored or pushed aside has less to do with a complete distrust of the scientific method and more to do with trust of individual sources, misinformation, isolated instances of motivated denial or even what my colleagues and I call a “flight from fact” rather than a straightforward “denial of fact.”
Almost every single person denies science at sometime. When I was younger, I denied the findings of the doctor who diagnosed me with hypoglycemia. Labeling me, then the top science student at my high school, “anti-science” would have been ludicrous. Rather, I was biased and motivated to deny an individual scientific fact that meant I would have to give up all my favorite foods.
It is bias, motivations, polarization and echo chambers that cause the real problems around science acceptance. And unfortunately, the simplified label “anti-science” often covers up these problems and prevents us from communicating scientific truth.
If we love science, then we need to starting being more scientific about science denial.
Troy Campbell is an assistant professor of marketing a the University of Oregon.
Supposedly neutral information spaces and truth
Dan Klyn, University of Michigan
In monetized information space, the truth isn’t overrated — it doesn’t rate at all.
Sen. Ted Stevens got it almost right: These places aren’t so much a series of tubes as they are a panoply of rectangles. And from smartphone apps to television studio sets, the arrangement of the information in these rectilinear spaces is set up to seem “neutral.”
Since the time of Vitruvius, Western conceptions of space have taught us that what’s at the top is tops, the utmost. This archaic spatial hierarchy has followed us into digital space. Horizontal streams of news and information flow at the bottom without regard to value. But what’s at the top of the screen — that’s still special.
So, is this special space reserved for what’s most true? No, something more important goes there — the content that’s most likely to make money.
Dan Klyn teaches information architecture at the University of Michigan.