Perception, the Press, and the Pursuit of Truth

For those that don’t know me well, I am a huge sports fan.  Specifically, I am a big Oklahoma State University sports fan.  Rooting for my alma mater is something that has been a part of my life since long before my matriculation in Stillwater, OK.  Two weeks ago, while enjoying the OSU football team beating up on a well-undermanned University of Texas-San Antonio team, I began to hear and read rumors that a big scandal was about to break regarding the Cowboy football program.

Sure enough a few hours later, the school sent out a mass e-mail warning alumni and fans that Sports Illustrated was about to run a series of stories that would make allegations of disturbing behavior that ran the gamut of NCAA violations.  Anxiety of the unknown hammer that was about to drop consumed me and the rest of the fan base who love the school so much.

As the stories were published1, one-by-one, over a period of five days, holes in them quickly began to appear.  From claims of misquoting to sketchy informants to unethical reporting tactics, the stories’ flaws became the topic of discussion more than the alleged facts.

dirty-gameTo make a long story short, the series fell apart pretty quickly for SI.  The magazine was chided and mocked by their peers in sports media and the magazine itself ended up trying to reframe the story so that the lack of actual evidence against OSU did not matter.

So it all ended up just fine, right?  In the long-term, the answer is likely yes, but in the short-term the national perception of the OSU football program is tarnished to some degree.  Regardless of the facts, many casual sports fans will look at the Cowboys’ success on the field differently because few paid enough attention to see past the eye-popping headlines.

Fast forward to this week, on a subject much more eternally important than sports, America Magazine published an extensive 12,000-word interview with Pope Francis.  In it, the Holy Father discussed a wide range of topics from his early life as a Jesuit to his collaborative philosophy on leading the global church.  More importantly, he talked about radical conversion, giving oneself over to the whole gospel, and finding spiritual balance.

While reading it, I didn’t think that I was reading anything radical in terms of a departure from Church teaching.  Apparently, I missed something that the New York Times caught.  The headline for the story in the Times reporting on the interview reads2 “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion”.  Wait, what?  Where was that?

Over the course of 12,000 words, the interview spent about 300 of them briefly discussing how the Church should deal with these prominent social issues.  The crux of the matter comes down to this quote.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

The national press from the Times to the Today Show pretty much stopped reading after the second sentence and wrote the rest of the story to fit the narrative they want to present resulting in the aforementioned headline.  The press was flooded with stories stopping just short of announcing a change in Church teaching on these hot-button moral topics despite Pope Francis clearly affirming the long-held teachings of the Church.pope-nyt

The problem here is that the media has a near monopoly to set the national perception of what the Pope said.  Much like the situation between Sports Illustrated and my alma mater, regardless of what was actually said or done, a majority of people will only come to perceive it through the lens and ink of the national press.

In today’s society, perception is reality.  What people perceive is truth, they believe is truth. This flawed concept plays a large part in the “dictatorship of relativism” that His Holiness Benedict XVI spoke so much about during his pontificate.  It allows the perception of truth to change to suit the agendas and desires of society.

Media across all segments of society exist to serve their own interests, even if those interests are just to attract advertisers which, in turn, have their own interests.  To serve their interests, their message doesn’t need to be true as long as it is perceived to be.  With so many voices seeking to define how we perceive the world, how do we get past perception to absolute truth?

The first step is acknowledging that absolute truth exists.  The failure to acknowledge absolute truth distorts our moral compass.  Today’s media create a serious challenge for those who are earnestly seeking truth.  Even the journalistic creed acknowledges that truth is “what he holds in his heart to be true.”  While we hope that absolute truth makes its way into our hearts, it is an ongoing struggle to separate the temporal perceptions we hold from the eternal truths that we seek.


1I am intentionally not linking to the SI articles due to their questionable content. Searching for “the dirty game sports illustrated” will guide you to them if you want to read them. I would encourage reading some of the non-SI coverage from sites like NewsOK.com and The Tulsa World to get a more balanced look at the situation.

2The linked article’s headline has changed from its initial wording, but is no less sensational.