On the Impossibility of Media Neutrality: Why We Need to Stop Talking about Facts and Start Talking about Values

Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Whenever information is communicated, it’s always done so for a specific reason, whether this be conscious or simply presupposed. There is always an intent (or a telos) to broadcasting facts, stories, and arguments. As such, there can never be such a thing as “unbiased” news or media — even if a source claims to be reporting “only the facts,” there is nothing in the facts themselves which say why these details ought to be communicated as opposed to others, or how this information should be presented in relation to other information. In answering such necessary questions, there is always an appeal to something outside of the domain of facts, as these are questions of value.

But that’s okay! The impossible goal of unbiased news would not even be desirable — we ARE creatures of value, and the reason we consume media ultimately comes down to our wanting to use this information to better pursue our own social, political, and cultural ends. What we need is not unbiased news, but transparent news — media outlets that explain what they see themselves as doing, and why they are making these choices. Whenever some publication tries to hide behind labels such as “unbiased” or “only reporting the facts,” they are attempting to weaponize the value we collectively hold for cold, hard scientific data exactly so they can more effectively push their agenda, as it becomes opaque and inaccessible. This is a nefarious way to present information to a citizenry and we ought to condemn these presentations—we should not give them the light of day.

Conversely, if a publication is explicitly very “biased” in a certain direction, that’s not necessarily sufficient reason to dismiss it outright. Just because the particular values presented differ from your own doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile engaging with these sources. Just ask yourself: are these people operating in good faith? Could you gain any insights from evaluating the stories and their presentations?

John Kerry interviewed on CBS by anchor Scott Pelley

Ultimately what this boils down to is being a more critical consumer of media. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the medias which align with your own values present stories and information in the most factual and neutral way — but that can never be the case. In every instance of communication, certain facts are highlighted while others aren’t emphasized or simply left out entirely. What determines which specific pieces of information are communicated is the narrative, and a narrative necessarily relates facts together in a supra ordinate way so that we are able to make sense of them — if a news story truly just communicated a disconnected list of facts about a particular current event, there’d be next to no coherence and it’d be very difficult to actually glean anything. No one would read that kind of news, and rightly so — again, we consume because it allows us new possibilities for understanding and engaging; a capacity which pure data or pure information simply doesn’t provide.

So it’s always important to bring a critical eye to all information. And a decently broad media diet is very helpful in making media appear more transparent in its biases and agendas. If you ever have the sense that certain publications or voices are simply neutral, you’ve strayed from this path. Of course you are going to agree with and support certain communications and presentations over others — but know that you are doing this not because they have the most objective presentations, but because they provide narratives that align with your values. But that’s okay! Human interpretation is always active, and we ought to talk in depth about which interpretations we should buy into, but this will never be settled by simply gesturing towards factuality, save in the most extreme cases where it is outright lies being broadcast.

Let’s have conversations around what we care about. And why. And engage each other with both critical curiosity and active open mindedness. This is what will lead us to effective dialogue around the crucial issues of our day — not an imagined direct access to facts, which never could provide us with the closure, certainty, or coherence we are actually, ultimately looking for.

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview