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Fair and Balanced? The Newsmedia’s Recent Lopsided Coverage of Evolution Controversy

John G. West

One pretty clear indicator of newsmedia bias is the amount of space news articles devote to each side of a public policy debate. Does each side of the debate get a similar number of words to describe and articulate their views? Or do reporters only provide one side of the debate space to articulate their position? If recent articles by major American newspapers are any indication, reporters writing about controversies over teaching evolution are engaging in seriously lopsided reporting, outquoting defenders of evolutionary theory by as much as 5 to 1. Moreover, many reporters appear to be censoring or refusing to report information that doesn’t fit their predetermined stereotypes. The following recent stories from The Washington Post, USA Today, and The San Francisco Chronicle provide good examples.

“Fresh Challenges in the Old Debate Over Evolution,” by Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post. (December 7, 2004, p. A14)

More than 50% of the Post article is devoted to comments and explanations by those who are defenders of evolutionary theory. Only 10% of the article is devoted to comments from those who favor greater critical analysis of the theory. In the process of only reporting one side of the debate, The Post simply censored any information that didn’t fit the newsmedia’s preconceived stereotypes on this issue.

For example, the Post cites in detail a professor from the University of Georgia who favors evolutionary theory, but the Post failed to even mention that nearly a dozen science professors at the University of Georgia (including several from the biological sciences) joined a legal brief in the Cobb County case arguing that there are significant scientific (not religious) controversies over modern evolutionary theory and that students ought to learn about these controversies as part of a good science education. Since the Post reporter was sent the legal brief submitted by these scientists, she knew about the existence of the scientists critical of evolutionary theory. Why, then, did she censor their views? Another example: The Post quotes the critics of intelligent design theory making the claim that it is the same thing as creation science. But the Post does not quote Discovery Institute’s response to this assertion. Not only did I discuss this point with the Post reporter, I e-mailed her a link to an article clearly spelling out why intelligent design is not the same thing as creationism. Whether or not Ms. Strauss agreed with my view, aren’t Post readers entitled to hear both points of view on this question? Isn’t that what fair reporting is supposed to be about?

“School science debate has evolved,” by Laura Parker, USA Today (November 28, 2004)

Out of an article of over 1000 words, Parker devotes 87 words to comments from 2 people favoring a critical analysis of evolution, while devoting 282 words to comments from 5 proponents of evolution. Thus, the article devotes more than three times as many words to advocates of one side of the debate than to advocates of the other side. As a result, the article reports a number of assertions made by one side of the debate without allowing readers to hear any of the susbstantive arguments made by the other side of the debate.

A case in point: The article quotes the proponents of evolution at least four times asserting that there is no scientific justification for criticisms of evolution. In their view, the dispute is all about religion. Yet the USA Today reporter knew that the other side of the debate vigorously disputes these claims. At her request, I sent her a legal brief filed in the Cobb County case by 30 scientists—many of them professors at Georgia’s leading research universities. Those scientists argue that there are in fact valid scientific criticisms of modern evolutionary theory, and that students ought to hear about them. This brief was filled with detailed citations to the relevant scientific literature. I sent the reporter another legal brief that provided even more citations, including the description of a list of more than 300 prominent scientists (from institutions like Yale, the Smithsonian, and Princeton) who dispute one of the central tenets of the modern theory of evolution (known as “neo-Darwinism”). Ms. Parker not only failed to report the existence of these scientists, she didn’t even report our side’s response to the claim that there is no scientific challenge to modern evolutionary theory. Why? Don’t USA Today readers deserve to hear what both sides of the debate are saying?

Finally, the USA Today story contains a significant error of fact. It claims that the Ohio Board of Education enacted a measure encouraging the teaching of intelligent design. In reality, the measure in question does not do this. In 2002 the Ohio Board adopted the following benchmark in its science standards: “Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory. (The intent of this benchmark does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design.)” The focus of the benchmark was teaching students about scientific criticisms of evolutionary theory, not presenting alternatives to evolutionary theory such as intelligent design.

“Anti-evolution teachings gain foothold in U.S. schools; Evangelicals see flaws in Darwinism,” by Anna Badkhen, San Francisco Chronicle (November 30, 2004)

How many stereotypes can you fit into one article? If you want to find out, read this editorial masquerading as a news article by Anna Badkhen. Badkhen devotes almost the entire article to complaints and perspectives raised by the defenders of evolution, and she effectively censors most of the responses of the other side. For example, Badkhen repeats again and again (and again) the assertion that criticism of evolution is just about religion. But she provides virtually no response from the other side of the debate. While she is intent on exposing what she regards as the religious motives of one side of the debate, she refused to quote any of the comments I made to her pointing out the anti-religious motives of leaders on the other side of the debate. As I told Badkhen during our interview, I think this debate should be about the substantive arguments, not about motives. But if reporters are intent of describing motives, they need to do so fairly for those on both sides. Out of a 1527 word article, Badkhen spends nearly 40% of her words to allowing defenders of evolution to make and explain their major points. She only devotes about 23% of her words to evolution’s critics, and that’s a generous calculation, since some of the quotes from evolution critics are clearly designed to make the major points of evolution’s defenders. The only thing that puzzles me is why Badkhen interviewed me at all, since she quoted virtually nothing of what I said, and indeed, part of her supposed quote from me (the term “evolution follies”) was something she made up—I’m not even sure what that term is supposed to mean.

These articles treat the debate over the teaching of evolution like it is a monologue—only reporting the arguments and assertions of one side. As a result, the articles perpetuate a lot of old stereotypes. They present the current debate as a stick-figure battle between credulous religious fundamentalists and the enlightened champions of science. But this is a gross caricature. There are many more voices to the debate. In particular, there are a growing number of voices within science and academia that are calling for a more thoughtful and critical presentation of the evidence for evolutionary theory (witness the science faculty from the University of Georgia who have publicly defended the Cobb County School District; or the state university biology professors in Ohio who helped craft that state’s model lesson plan on evolution). By refusing even to mention these more nuanced voices—and by trying to lump everyone into the “religion v. science” framework—the newsmedia are seriously distorting the real policy debate over evolution education. The egregious stereotyping and caricatures promoted by many reporters on this issue would never be tolerated in reporting about gays or blacks. Reporters need to think seriously about whether they are allowing their own prejudices to taint their reporting on this issue.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.