Breaking news! (Exploring media bias through a journalistic thought experiment)



Here's a headshot. Take a look at it. What are your honest first impressions of the man pictured? Now, take careful stock of how your emotional and cognitive inventory develop as you read these two "news articles" from two different sources telling his story.


Take one: The cynic


This religious fanatic started a cult by which he was able to take advantage of teenagers and convince them to abandon their families and jobs because "poverty is a blessing". He recruited prostitutes and brainwashed a number of women to pay his cult's expenses and fund his "ministry", although it is unclear where that money actually went, since he remained both poor and homeless.


Even though all local religious groups and political parties were united in identifying him as a danger to both church and state, he went on the run and continued his brainwashing by taking advantage of the poor and uneducated. He broke countless laws but was able to get away with it by staying on the move.


During the week of the country’s most sacred religious festival, he marched on the capitol city with crowds of people, all convinced he was a divine authority figure, chanting to replace the government with him as a king. Fortunately, the rightful and benevolent government got hold of him by using an informant from within his group, and they were able to expedite the trial process and convict him of blasphemy. In addition to blasphemy, his “kingly” stunts were a threat to overthrow the imperial government, so the priests worked with the local magistrate to apply the standard death sentence for crimes of treason: crucifixion, an act which, although rather gruesome, serves to publicly highlight the consequences of threatening law, order, and the rightful and benevolent rule of Caesar.


Take two: The admirer


This traveling preacher began his ministry by inviting young people from marginalized groups to join him in a religious reformation. Their passion for renewal was so great that they were willing to move out from their homes and quit their jobs to join him on the road, even if it meant embracing a life of voluntary poverty. His message of freedom (called the “good news”) even appealed to local social outcasts, including prostitutes and tax collectors employed by the violent colonizers. People of means offered donations to fund him and his students; it appears the funds were used responsibly with low overhead, because they usually relied on locals to offer temporary housing and purchased the bare minimum of food and supplies.


Although his message was denounced as a threat to the status quo and a violation of the religious purity codes enforced by the strict priestly aristocracy, he avoided imprisonment and possible execution by frequently moving from place to place, sharing his teachings with the poor more often than the elite.


Shortly before the beginning of Passover, a feast which commemorates freedom from oppressive slavery, the people honored him with a memorial parade. They cried out for him to save them, presumably from the imperial colonizers and their puppet religious regime. (The empire maintained a strong military presence in the region and regularly performed mass executions against those who spoke out against the oppression.)


Because of his compelling message, the general public saw him as a prophet and messenger of God. Unfortunately, that same week one of his followers accepted a bribe worth about $600 to betray his location. Very late that night, while he was fervently praying, soldiers showed up and arrested him. The religious council carried out a mock trial in the middle of the night, found him guilty of blasphemy, and delivered him over to the imperial governor. The high priest (and possibly much of the council) had been installed by the occupying force and collaborated with them; by implying he was a threat to Roman rule, they convinced the governor to allow them to beat him, strip him naked, and execute him publicly in a gruesome process known as “crucifixion”, where offenders are nailed to planks of wood until they suffocate and die.


And my point is...


I'm sure it's obvious by now who this is. The photograph above is one artist's attempt to give an accurate portrayal of what Jesus of Nazareth could have actually looked like.


It’s amazing how effectively news reports can put an editorial spin on even the most basic factual reports. All of the details in both these stories are taken directly from the Gospels and other historical sources. I took no creative license when it came to the facts, yet choosing my words carefully gave me all the freedom in the world to cast Jesus in either a glaringly negative or profoundly positive light. Even though neither of these short “reports” are explicitly opinion pieces, the bias shines through nonetheless.


The point of this creative exercise was not to provide a theological commentary. Instead, I wanted to find an unusual and relatable (for most of my readers) example to illustrate the remarkable power of “spin” when it comes to news media. Although most of us know this implicitly, we tend to only call it out when we see it being done by “the other side”.


Unfortunately, most of our news today comes from articles shared on social media. And what gets shared? Sensationalism. Articles where the headline alone is enough to further polarize the audience - convincing the ones who are predisposed to agree and infuriating the others who (almost inevitably) have no interest in listening to the other side. In fact, most of us don’t even read past the headline. When we actually do click the link, it’s often just to skim the article and find the most interesting (i.e. polarizing, shocking, or controversial) points.


We need to learn better media literacy. We need to train ourselves (and our children and students) how to better discern what is really going on. We rarely ever get the full story anywhere, but we certainly can’t get it from a single news article or even all the articles from a single media outlet. The best we can do is work to round out our knowledge and consider things fairly - whether we like what we see or not - before we start turning our opinions into dogma. Because, as the two “news articles” above have hopefully demonstrated, even investigative journalism*, especially when condensed into a short article, requires interpretation by both the writer and the reader.


*I don’t intend this article as a slight to journalists or the idea of unbiased reporting. I know that exists and that many authors work hard to present the facts in as neutral a way as possible. I’m sure that the two “articles” I wrote would be slammed by any reporter trained in proper unbiased writing. Still, we see far too many of these kinds of articles today in the most frequently shared media sources. I only hope it bothers as many journalists as it bothers me.


©2019 by Corey Farr.