Free press v. free will: Do we have either?

August 6, 2020 8:00 am

The pandemic has highlighted the need for newspapers. (Photo by Carol Yepes/Getty Images)

The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) maintained that we all have free will. At issue, he says, is who or what shaped that will.

In his book “Essays and Aphorisms,” he writes, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” In other words, perception becomes our reality.

What factors influence our perception of free will or media coverage in free press?

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines “free will” as “the ability to act and make choices independent of any outside influence.”

It defines “free press” as reporters being able “to express any opinions they want, even if these criticize the government and other organizations.”

Origins of free press begin with Thomas Jefferson’s belief that citizens “are the only censors of their governors.” He embraced this idea so fervently that he proclaimed, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

He qualified that, stating, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

Those qualifications helped insure a free press. Delivery progressed from horseback and pony express to telegraph, train, ship, plane, truck and, finally, worldwide digital access.

Reading required education. John Jay, first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, believed “nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining (education) at a cheap and easy rate.”

(Jay likely would disapprove of rising college tuition rates.)

Speaking of money, one of the biggest influences on most media is profit. Editors and publishers at publicly traded media companies typically consider views of shareholders as well as corporate branding, audience attitudes and advertising.

According to the American Press Institute, media bias also happens when reporters act as crusaders or seek to please editors and sources. Sometimes they simply follow the pack (what other outlets are covering) without regard to newsworthiness.

Journalism educators train aspiring reporters to question their own perceptions and to assemble as many facts as possible to balance stories.

Of course, reporters are people whose perception is subject to the same biases as members of the audience.

Case in point: You’re probably reading this through personal filters, which include your generation, religion, culture, politics, ethnicity, experiences, mood and expectations. The latter is especially powerful. Many of us expect reality to align with our perceptions.

Ironically, a key factor shaping perception is the media we support or dislike. We may patronize or loathe Fox News or MSNBC because their reports affirm or undermine our political biases. But we’re not passive consumers. We link, copy and paste our views on social media and fault others who criticize our posts and opinions.

That affects our mood.

Nevertheless, Americans consume news and social media at record rates. We use or view online content as if our lives depended on it, spending about 11 hours per day, or two-thirds of waking hours.

We are so hooked on media that people typically experience withdrawal symptoms as severe as addictive substances.

According to Psychology Today, “In the same way that ‘a fish only notices the water when it is gone,’ if media communications were suddenly eliminated from our lives, we would experience a major social and emotional sense of loss.”

As a consequence, media gives us a false sense of reality. Coupled with our own innate biases, our view of the world is skewed.

Psychologist Jim Taylor affirms that in his article, “Perception is Not Reality”:

“Perception acts as a lens through which we view reality. Our perceptions influence how we focus on, process, remember, interpret, understand, synthesize, decide about, and act on reality. In doing so, our tendency is to assume that how we perceive reality is an accurate representation of what reality truly is. But it’s not.”

In the end, we may not have a free press or free will devoid of bias. But there are things we can do to see the world more impartially.

Taylor recommends the following:

  • Don’t assume that your perceptions are reality (it’s just your reality).
  • Be respectful of others’ perceptions (they may be right).
  • Your perceptions may be wrong (admitting it takes courage).
  • Challenge your perceptions (do they hold up under scrutiny)?
  • Seek out validation from experts and credible others (don’t just ask your friends).
  • Be open to modifying your perceptions if evidence demands it (rigidity of mind is far worse than being wrong).

Journalists also would do well to follow those guidelines to fulfill their primary mission of informing the public so that citizens make intelligent decisions in the voting booth.

If we all challenged perceptions, we might realize what Jefferson and Jay envisioned to safeguard rights and liberties, and both our will and press would be freer than they are in these divisive times.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.