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Fact-Check: Austin, TX, Newspaper Bungles Description of Discovery Institute; Reporter Won’t Correct Record

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We’ve tangled with the Austin American Statesman in the past. Now the Texas paper is back, misrepresenting Discovery Institute. In her article, “Creationism at Center of Debate Over High School Biology Curriculum,” Madlin Mekelburg notes:

Jonathan Witt, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank, told the board he found the committee’s intent behind removing the four standards to be questionable… [Emphasis added.]

Discovery Institute is an intelligent design think tank — not a creationist think tank. I explained this to Ms. Mekelburg in an email sent on the day after her article was published:

Discovery Institute is not a creationist organization. Rather, it is “the institutional hub for scientists, educators, and inquiring minds who think that nature supplies compelling evidence of intelligent design.” Intelligent design is the idea that some features of the universe and living things are best explained as the product of an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process like natural selection. It is not the same as creationism. Creationism is typically associated with a literal reading of Genesis, a young age of the earth, and a belief that science can prove the supernatural. Intelligent design does not address how to interpret Genesis and most of the scientists supporting it accept an old age of the Earth and the universe. See a more detailed description as to the differences between intelligent design and creationism here.

I ask that you please correct this error. It would be accurate to state that Discovery Institute is an “intelligent design think tank.”

The following Monday, I followed up with the newspaper’s editors. I called the twice last week but have not heard back. It is concerning that this inquiry has gone entirely unaddressed.

As Center for Science & Culture associate director John West wrote in an article on stereotyping of intelligent design,

Unfortunately, when it comes to the issue of intelligent design (ID), many journalists throw their professional training out the door. Reporters who would never dream of caricaturing a woman or a gay person uncritically repeat as fact the tendentious claim that intelligent design proponents are “creationists.” Reporters usually do this without even defining what creationism is, although the term is presumably meant to conjure up lurid images of (take your pick) Inherit the Wind, Bible-thumpers, witch trials, religious fundamentalism, and humans cavorting with dinosaurs a few thousand years ago.

What is really going on here is censorship. When reporters use as a “neutral” description of intelligent design a polemical smear invented by its critics, they are effectively silencing intelligent design proponents by not allowing them to speak for themselves. They are poisoning the well so no one will be willing to listen to the actual views expressed by intelligent design proponents. Journalists who write about intelligent design should re-read the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, especially the provisions calling for them to “Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant” and to “Give voice to the voiceless….”

Whatever a news reporter’s views on intelligent design, he or she has a professional duty not to simply spread stereotypes and caricatures. That duty means nothing if it only applies to news coverage of groups and positions with which the reporter agrees. The real test of fairness for reporters is how they treat those with whom they disagree. When it comes to intelligent design, sadly, many reporters are failing the test.

Austin American Statesman reporter Madlin Mekelburg could take a lesson in neutrality in reporting.

Photo credit: Jon S via Flickr.