Oklahoma City’s NBC affiliate did a story Thursday on an academic freedom bill now making its way through Oklahoma’s legislature. The reporter, Paige Hill, spoke with state Representative Gus Blackwell, the bill’s sponsor in the Oklahoma House. Interestingly, Ms. Hill does not quote Rep. Blackwell but still attributes to him bad legislative intent:
Blackwell says the bill’s current language doesn’t mandate teaching creationism in the classroom, but instead gives teachers the right to talk about it and other scientific theories.
Uh oh. That can’t be good. Did Rep. Blackwell really say his bill would allow religion (creationism) in public school science class? Or did Ms. Hill put words in his mouth? Before we get to that, does the law care in the first place what Rep. Blackwell intends his bill to do? Well, it might.
In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the Supreme Court of the United States scrutinized the legislative history behind Louisiana’s Balanced Treatment Act before declaring the Act and its intended effect — creationism in public school science class — an unconstitutional establishment of religion by government. Of course, a TV interview is not legislative history, as we’ve pointed out before, so it is unlikely that Ms. Hill’s attribution of (legally) bad intent to Rep. Blackwell would ever matter as a matter of law. Even so, it is still important to get these things right, if only as a matter of journalistic integrity.
In response to Ms. Hill’s attribution, Rep. Blackwell wrote to Discovery Institute on Friday to make the following claim: “I DID NOT say that. I specifically pointed out [the] bill forbids it,” adding that we could quote him on that. In addition to communicating with Discovery Institute on the matter, I understand Rep. Blackwell called the station Friday seeking correction of the story. It is now Tuesday. The station has not corrected the story.
Should the station correct the story? Yes, it should. Why? Because nowhere in the TV interview (embedded in the post; press play to see and hear it) does Rep. Blackwell say his bill would “giv[e] teachers the right to talk about [creationism],” as Ms. Hill says he says. Rather, Rep. Blackwell says, as you can hear for yourself, that his bill tells teachers: “You have the academic freedom to actually explore.”
Journalists must be able to back up their claims as to who said what with an audio recording or other source of objective evidence. (That, in part, is why journalists often carry recorders.) Ms. Hill quotes Rep. Blackwell three times. Each of these quotes is backed up by an audio recording. That is how it should be. Twice, however, Ms. Hill attributes words to Rep. Blackwell without using quote marks, without evidence to back up the attribution. That is not how it should be. The resulting story is a tricky mix of honest and not-so-honest reporting that is bound to mislead people.
Ms. Hill and Oklahoma City’s News Channel 4 should correct this incorrect story about academic freedom and shoot straight with folks on this subject from now on.