Thursday, February 21, 2008

Objectivity Vs. Subjectivity

Objectivity Vs. Subjectivity - a study in philosophy and journalism.
by Bill Widman

Perhaps it was Socrates who introduced the concept of objective perspective to western thought. If not the originator, he was certainly a powerful advocate. Socrates argued that reality is in no way dependent on our ability to perceive it in order to exist. Instead, reality exists far beyond our perception. If a tree falls in the forest and no one's around to hear it, the same vibrations occur whether they are perceived or not. The universe does not revolve around the human mind, and this is fortunate because no one knows how to direct the life forces which govern the universe.
Thus spoke Socrates, "The true lover of knowledge, whose nature is to strive toward reality, shall not tarry among the objects of opinion which the many believe to be real."
The idea that reality revolves around a certain individual (such as one's self) is considered delusional, and referred to as "self centered." This is perhaps the most irrational of all delusions. Socrates is considered a rationalist. He taught that there is a whole lot more going on outside our awareness than within it, and probably more than we will ever know.
Thus it has long been considered that being objective is relative to being rational.

Ask any police officer about what happens when a number of witnesses are being questioned who all saw the same accident, and he will probably tell you that each witness gives a different account. That's because each person sees things in his/her own unique way. Here we have an example of people being subjective. These people are not just telling about what they saw, but also the impressions it has made on them, often with more emphasis on the latter.

Since the early days of American journalism, it has been a rule that a reporter must not give his/her opinion or any personal thoughts on the story he/she was reporting, and give only a completely objective account. There are professional people in this world who are referred to as "a trained observer." It is widely believed that a human being cannot be completely objective, so one must be specially trained for it. We are all personally affected by whatever we experience.
As Jack Webb was famous for saying, "Just the facts, Ma'am."

On May 6, 1937, in Lakehurst, NJ, radio announcer Herb Morrison gave one of the most famous news reports in American history, the Hindenburg Disaster. This announcer had never covered a disaster before, when one occurred during his announcement on the arrival of the famous zeppelin. His emotional reaction to the scene has made him famous, and the recording of it is still very popular. Urban legend has it that Morrison was fired from his job with radio station WLS in Chicago for going so emotional on his coverage, but this was denied by Morrison and the radio station. On the contrary, he was highly commended for his conduct, as he continued with his story with accurate description.

Perhaps the most notorious name in American journalism is Hunter Thompson. He had long held a reputation for breaking all the rules. Thompson was discharged from the Air Force, where he was writing for the base newspaper, for his controversial opinions. Later, he was writing a sports column for a Kentucky newspaper, where he continued to express his strong anti-republican views. This made him offensive to some, but endearing to others. Letters to the editor from people who have enjoyed reading his column have kept him from getting fired, and in some cases, got him hired back. Thompson is credited for introducing what he called, "Gonzo Journalism." It was his well demonstrated opinion that a good writer must put himself in the story, get involved in it, and write from that perspective. I believe that the success of Thompson as an author lends strong support for his theory.

When responding to an emergency situation, the first thing we are taught is, "stay calm, don't panic." Emergency medical technicians, law enforcement officers, and mental health professionals, all know very well that emotion can "cloud your judgment," and only by maintaining an objective perspective can you "see through" the crisis at hand, and focus your attention on what needs to be done.

Psychologists divide human behavior into two bodies, Reason and Emotion. Emotion may be allowed to go out and play sometimes, but Reason must always be in charge. Reason is the responsible adult who sits in the driver's seat, and commands obedience. Emotion is the fussy child who sits in the back seat, and is told to behave. Emotion must never be allowed to drive, as the results could be dangerous. When Reason is negligent of maintaining command, the individual may get into trouble with those in proximity, or even harm himself.

No philosopher in his right mind (or left one either) would dare suggest that we do away with emotion, as it is the very source of connecting with the world we live in, and those we share it with. It is what every artist strives to effect.

A good writer must know that the best way to get people to read what one writes, is to write what people want to read. Emotion may be used to get in touch with the reader. I believe that a writer's greatest challenge is to establish a personal connection with the reader, with the inscribed words being one's only source of contact.

In closing, Dear Reader, I leave you with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Dr. Ben Franklin.
"If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins!"

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