Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

The Narratives around Jussie Smollett

December 17, 2021

~ 12 minutes read

In the past year, we’ve seen many high profile court cases discussed in both traditional and social media. Often, these conversations look very different on the left and right – you might even wonder if they are talking about the same case.

Last week, actor Jussie Smollett was found guilty on 5 out of 6 charges of disorderly conduct in connection with his claim that two men attacked him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs in 2019.

The conversations surrounding this case clearly illustrate what it may look like when the left and right seem to be talking about completely different things, even when they are discussing the same case.  Below, we examine what the conversation has looked like on the left and the right at different points of the investigation to better try to understand why our perspectives can diverge so significantly.

January 29, 2019: Initial reports of the alleged attack

During this time, the conversation took place almost exclusively on the right.

February 15, 2019: Investigation trajectory changes to focus on Smollett

During this time, the conversation took place mostly on the left.

February 21, 2019: Smollett is arrested

March 8, 2019: Smollett is indicted

During this time, the conversation took place mostly on the right.

March 26, 2019: Charges against Smollett are dropped

During this time, the conversation took place mostly on the right.

April 11-May 30, 2019: Documents from the investigation are released after court order

During this time, the conversation took place mostly on the right.

June 21, 2019: Judge orders a special prosecutor to be appointed

During this time, the conversation took place mostly on the right.

August 23, 2019: Special prosecutor appointed

Neither people on the left nor the right were deeply involved discussing this event in the Smollett case.

February 11-24, 2020: Smollett is indicted and pleads not guilty

During this time, the conversation took place mostly on the right.

August 17, 2020: An inquiry into the Cook County Attorney Office’s handling of the Smollett case ends

During this time, the conversation took place almost exclusively on the right.

November 29, 2021: Smollett’s trial starts

During this time, the conversation took place mostly on the right.

December 9, 2021: The jury announces the verdict in Smollett’s trial

During this time, the conversation took place mostly on the right.

Common themes: Both sides criticize each other and the media for focusing on the wrong things,  ignoring what’s important, or talking about the story inaccurately.

What we consider important depends on our prior values and beliefs. Because the values of people on the left and right often differ, what is important to one side might appear less important to the other. All people tend to emphasize events which fit within our prior worldview and deemphasize stories that don’t, leading the left and right to develop distinct narratives. 

To people on the left, Trump’s polarizing rhetoric has empowered people to openly express their hatred towards minorities, either verbally or physically, creating an unsafe society for many Americans. The reports about the alleged attack against Smollett appeared unsurprising given the increased intolerance towards minorities. 

Accordingly, the left actively participated in the conversation after the initial reports about the attack — the event fit within their view that intolerance towards minorities is a big problem in society. 

To people on the right, the threat towards minority groups is exaggerated by the left to give Trump supporters a bad wrap. People on the left and the media often make up stories to support their narrative of what society looks like. In reality, the left has no basis for their claims — the Smollett story proves that.  

Information suggesting that the attack on Smollett was staged confirmed this view, and so people on the right participated more actively in conversations about Smollett’s guilt.

As an example, let’s look at the differences between two articles covering the Smollett verdict from last week — one from left-leaning CNN, and one from right-leaning FoxNews. Although both news outlets report on the same story and present (as far as we can tell) correct facts about what happened, their choices and language impact how the event is presented.

Bold and underline emphasis was added to these excerpts by our team to highlight the differences in coverage.

 

CNN: A jury found Jussie Smollett guilty of falsely reporting a hate crime. Here’s what comes next 

“​​Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was found guilty Thursday on five counts of felony disorderly conduct for making false reports to police that he was the victim of a hate crime in January 2019.

His defense team said it will appeal the verdict.

Jurors deliberated over the course of two days following a trial that featured Smollett and his accomplices providing  strikingly different testimony over what occurred.”

 

FoxNews: Jussie Smollett convicted of staging hate crime, lying to cops

Jussie Smollett was found guilty on 5 out of 6 charges at his hate crime hoax trial.

After a contentious week of witness testimony, counsel arguments and deliberation, the jury found Smollett guilty on the first five counts, and he was acquitted on a sixth count of lying to a detective weeks after Smollett said he was attacked.

Smollett was stoic as the jury read the verdict. The actor sat upright and stared straight ahead without showing any outward emotion.”

 

The first part of CNN’s article focuses on the defense team’s intent to appeal the verdict and the jurors’ long deliberations due to conflicting testimony. This reporting supports the general perspective on the left that hate crimes must be taken seriously and that this story is continuing to develop.

The first part of FoxNews’ article instead focuses on Smollett’s claim as illegitimate. This feeds into the general view on the right that people on the left tend to jump to conclusions to discredit the right in general, and Trump supporters in particular, even when they have done nothing wrong. 

Both news outlets are reporting on what happened at and after the trial, but because they emphasize different information (CNN reports on the prospect of an appeal and Fox on the guilty verdict) and use different words to describe the event (“felony disorderly conduct” vs “hate crime hoax”), the story is presented in different ways.

Conclusion

Some narratives feel more true to us because they better align with our worldview and previous experiences, while narratives that contradict our worldview feel less true, even when they convey correct information. 

This can happen for any news story, but stories that include several distinct events and develop over a long period of time, like court cases, are particularly susceptible to this dynamic. We tend to get lost in the twists and turns, and end up internalizing the details that make sense to us, while instinctively filtering out what doesn’t. The conversation around this case illustrates how it’s possible for the left and right to discuss the details of the same event and yet develop two very different narratives about what happened.   

Because of this, our contra partisans are not necessarily lying when they disagree with us. Instead, they might be bringing a very different perspective from our own because the information they have read differs from ours. By recognizing this, we can start to piece together the immense complexity of different news stories and remain open to the possibility that there is more for us all to learn. 

What do you think? Do you agree with one side, or do you fall somewhere in between? Give us feedback on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook, or by emailing info@narrativesproject.com.