Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, November 12, 2012

News, slant, and the Weeping Jesus of Huntsville

One of the points I make repeatedly in my Critical Thinking classes is that there is no such thing as unbiased media.  Every media has slant.  Even the decision to say "this is news" and "this is not news, don't show/print this" represents a bias -- they are deciding for you what is important for you to hear.  This is not to say that you shouldn't believe anything you read, hear, or see on public media, but it does mean that you can't just watch with your brain shut off.

Of course, not everyone approaches it this way, which is why it really pisses me off when a professional media outlet prints (and televises) stuff like this article, entitled "'Black Jesus' Draws Mystery To Visitors At Historic Cemetery."

In this story, we hear about the early 20th century sculpture "The Comforting Christ," which stands in historic Oakwood Cemetery in Huntsville, Texas.  The statue was commissioned by Judge Benjamin Powell and his wife in honor of their son, who had died young during a botched surgery.  The statue, made of bronze, has darkened to near black by the effects of weathering.  It is clearly an imposing figure in the quiet cemetery.

But the story isn't about a historically interesting piece of art work, nor about a public figure's grief over losing a child, nor even about how the beauty of a local churchyard attracts visitors.  No, this story is about...

... spirits.

And hauntings.  And the fact that the Jesus statue sometimes cries, sometimes its eyes open, and sometimes its hands, which normally face downwards, turn palm up.  And even at this point, the people at KVUE and KHOU who did this story could have to some extent salvaged it, by focusing on how people are sometimes primed by their emotions and fears to believe bizarre, counterfactual stuff.

But no.  The reporters and writers leapt right into this big ol' vat of woo-woo, and called out their own "investigators" who came there, armed with divining rods and a "paranormal activity meter."  The rods and the meter, the "investigators" said, showed clearly that the ghost of Rawley Powell was present.  The "investigators" asked Rawley's ghost if the statue's hands would turn upward that night, and Rawley answered yes.  However, evidently he got his ghostly wires crossed, because the reporters and "investigators" stayed there all evening, and nothing happened... although the "paranormal activity meter registered a spike."

Oooh.  My little heart is just going thumpety-thump.

I'm sorry, folks at KVUE and KHOU, this is not a news story.  It's not even a human interest story.  This is a story about suckering the credulous.  None of the alleged antics of the Jesus statue -- opening and closing eyes, weeping, moving hands -- has the least bit of supporting evidence other than the usual "my aunt's best friend's daughter saw it happen."  (James Patton of the Walker County Historical Commission called the claims "ridiculous.")  Controlled tests of divining rods have repeatedly failed (see an excellent summary of those studies here); evidence of ghosts is sketchy at best, although (as I have said before) there are some suggestive bits of evidence here and there regarding hauntings.  It would certainly take more than someone swinging around some divining rods and claiming that the "paranormal activity meter" pegged the needle to convince me that there was anything going on.

But of course, that's not how the news sources presented it, is it?  A quick mention of Patton's dismissive comment was the only skeptical statement in the entire article; in fact, just the idea that KVUE and KHOU themselves invited "paranormal investigators" out lends an unwarranted credibility to the whole thing.

So, all of this further reinforces my impression that what sells sponsorship to news agencies isn't veracity, or even good reporting; it's "whatever the public will buy."  Meaning that as always, a good skeptic's motto should be caveat emptor.

1 comment:

  1. If you happen to catch an episode of "The O'Reilly Factor" you'll be in "the no spin zone" on the network that's "fair and balanced."

    Like a bully saying "I'm a nice guy, you can trust me."