Seeing isn't believing in the Greek baby baptism

(COMMENTARY) The internet furore over the violent Greek Orthodox baby baptism has seeped into the press. The story in itself is amusing, but it also provides a teaching moment on how not to do journalism.

The difficulty is how to report on YouTube videos. Is seeing believing? How do you report accurately and fairly on a video that cannot be authenticated?

On my Facebook and Twitter feed I received a post linking to a video of an extraordinary baptism. Within a few days the story made its way into The SunDaily MailMirror, News Corp., and other television and press outlets. 

The British tabloid The Sun, which was reprinted in News Corp.’s Australian and New Zealand papers, had this story:

A GREEK orthodox bishop has come under fire after appearing to baptize a tiny tot a little bit too vigorously. In the footage that has appeared online the man of the cloth repeatedly dunks the naked baby into the baptismal font.
The tot is rapidly dunked three times into the water before being handed back to his unperturbed parents. According to reports the footage was taken in Ayia Napa, Cyprus, at a Greek Orthodox church.
With the church, baptisms are usually done ‘forcefully’ which is seen as a solution to the declining birth rate. Many online commentators have criticised the bishop’s rather rough approach.

The article closes with a summary of comments and criticisms of what viewers saw in the film. The Daily Mail ran a condensed version of the story, omitting the word “Greek” from the text as well as the extraordinary assertion that aggressive dunking results in a population boom. The Mirror kept the cleric Greek Orthodox and promoted him to archbishop.

What nobody appears to have done is ask the Greek Orthodox Church about this baptism. I am not Greek Orthodox, but what I saw was not the same as what The Sun saw. To my eyes the man was not dressed in the vestments of the Greek Orthodox Church and to my ears the language spoken in the clip was not Greek. 

After the story took off the Greek Orthodox Church press went into action and asked the obvious question - “what can you tell us about this video?”  The Greek Archdiocese of Australia responded:

“The Greek Archdiocese of Australia would like to make it known that this is definitely not the Greek Orthodox practice. The ‘priest’ in question is not Greek Orthodox, nor is he a bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church as is alleged of the video.”

It went on to say the bouncing baby baptism was:

“ … not condoned in the Greek Orthodox Church; not only are they inappropriate but they are also nothing short of being physically abusive. Whilst the early Church practice by full immersion is carried out to this day in the Greek Orthodox Church, this is typically done by seating the infant in the baptismal font and gently pouring water over their head in much the same way that they might be bathed by their parents.”

The Greek Archdiocese of Britain said: 

“We would like to make clear that this is not in a Greek Orthodox Church (as wrongly stated in the press) – in either the UK, Greece or Cyprus. The “priest” is also definitely not a Bishop or Archbishop, as reported. This is quite evident by style of dress. We also note the fact that they are also speaking a language other than Greek.”

“Seeing is believing” goes the adage. But are you seeing what I am seeing? How do we know which of us is correct? I write not to bore you with my philosophical musings on the nature of truth but to address the extraordinary degree of cognitive dissidence found in the media today.

As most Americans know, our network news shows offer competing truths. This week one cable news network reported that Donald Trump labeled all immigrants as “animals" - while a second stated the president had called members of the criminal MS-13 gang “animals." Reporters from a variety of news outlets were present when the president made these remarks - yet came away with wildly different accounts of what took place.

This is advocacy reporting. Biases and preconceived notions drove the truths of a story.  Opponents of the president heard a racist comment, while supporters heard a commonplace observation. Each side ran with what they heard. Few bothered to check the truth of their perceptions.

The classical school of Anglo-American reporting seeks to stand outside biases and preconceived notions. Some philosophers will tell us that this quest is impossible, as truth they say is grounded in individual perceptions. Yet, a professional reporter will still seek to abide by the code of disinterestedness - of coming to a story without prejudgement, but with a degree of knowledge that enables them to inform others.

In this story we have a hirsute foreigner celebrating a ritual that is familiar to many readers, but performed in an extraordinary, if not distasteful, way. The preconceived notion the British and Australian press brought to the story was “look at those funny foreigners." The comments that followed these stories were dominated by nasty comments made by bigots and zealots, whose on bile was fueled by what they already knew to be true -that Christians are evil, sick, deluded…

Seeing is believing, if you know what you are looking at. If you don’t know - ask!

Here is a link to the video: