Headline Bias?

Isn't it odd that the NYTimes would focus on the religious divide rather than the shared values of Evangelicals and Romney in this article?

Somewhere deep in the penetralia of the NYTimes, somebody decided - whether consciously or not - to give this bit of news a unfavorable twist. A more convivial headline editor may have suggested "Evangelical supports Romney" to better reflect the overall message of the story.

Here is an metaphor for the intrinsic bias that may be at work.  Think of the story as a top. The top can either be spun clockwise or counterclockwise to initiate its pirouette. The top is the same collection of molecules that predictably spins about the center pivot whether spun one way or the other - that is, the facts of the story are the same no matter which way it is spun. But the top's path and disposition is affected by its direction of rotation.

The decision about which way to twist the spintop may not be a function of some directional intent. It may just be the result of whether one is left-handed or right-handed. Although not necessarily a conscious decision to impart a particular spin direction, this physical bias certainly imposes a spin direction whether intended or not.

If you read to the end of the article, you discover that in spite of his theological disagreements, the Pastor said “I’m going to instruct, I’m going to advise people that it is much better to vote for a non-Christian who embraces biblical values than to vote for a professing Christian like Barack Obama who embraces un-biblical values.” A 'right-handed' editor might have headlined the article "Republican Big Tent Has Room For All Faiths."

But the NYTimes editor chose to highlight the theological quarrels that an Evangelical Pastor has with a Mormon candidate. The editor might just as well have reminded us that Rabbis do not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and that Protestants think the Pope is a heretic. Not exactly press-stopping scoops.

But if "Imam Calls Obama's Pastor An Infidel" headlined an article that ultimately acknowledged that the Imam encouraged Muslims to vote for Obama based on shared values in spite of their theological differences, one would rightly wonder why such a divisive headline was necessary. Similarly, the selection of "Prominent Pastor Calls Romney’s Church a Cult" as the headline for this article is unnecessarily provocative.

In these times when many lament the "narrow visions" and "deep political divides," and some pine for the days when "we can all just get along," one might imagine the Times would be interested in giving the reader a literary warm hug by highlighting the 'let's-get-along' attitude demonstrated by this preacher who was willing to set aside some major doctrinal differences.

However, maybe this headline was not intended to mislead the casual reader by suggesting that Romney has been excommunicated from the Evangelical ballot. Maybe that is too negative a read of what was intended. The writer may have been providing context so that the reader could fully appreciate the magnitude of compromise that the Pastor was willing to make.

Or maybe the devil made him do it.

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