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Fact-Check: Reporter John Austin Misrepresents TX Science Standards, Refuses to Correct the Record

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A journalist working for a national newspaper chain has fabricated a claim about the Texas science standards, and now he and his editor are refusing to correct the record.

In late September, three Texas newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. (CNHI) published an article by reporter John Austin claiming that a science standard adopted by Texas in 2009 authorizes the teaching of “non-scientific explanations.” That claim is false.

Austin asserted that conservatives on the Texas State Board of Education in 2009 “inserted language into the high school biology curriculum allowing teachers to introduce non-scientific explanations for such questions as why some creatures suddenly appeared in the fossil record about 500 million years ago, instead of more gradually.” (Emphasis added.) See the article at the Weatherford Democrat, The Huntsville Item, and Jacksonville Progress.

In fact, the statement in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Science standards Austin refers to says exactly the opposite:

(7)(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record; (Emphasis added.)

This is not a question of opinion. It’s a question of basic fact. A reporter claims that an educational policy authorizes “non-scientific explanations,” but the text of the policy itself says it authorizes “scientific explanations.”

You might like to think that when such a clear-cut factual error is pointed out, the journalist would quickly correct it. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case when it comes to Mr. Austin and his Boston-based editor David Joyner.

Yet two of our staff persons, Ms. Sarah Chaffee and Dr. Jonathan Witt, spent nearly a month in repeated emails and phone calls trying to get some action to correct this error. Only after continued and persistent requests for a correction did Austin finally respond. One of CNHI’s local editors in Texas was sympathetic and fair-minded. But he indicated that he had no power to do anything because reporter John Austin is overseen by Boston-based editor David Joyner.

Without explanation, Austin simply insisted that he and his editor had found no error. When our staff followed up with Joyner directly, he vaguely alluded to “various statements in the standards that require critical analysis of science’s limits” and asserted that the statement was accurate. But Joyner could not quote even one statement from the Texas science standards authorizing “non-scientific explanations.” More importantly, he did not explain how a policy that explicitly authorizes “scientific explanations” can be accurately described as calling for the opposite.

We understand that the debate over how evolution should be taught in public schools is contentious, and that Mr. Joyner and Mr. Austin likely strongly disagree with current Texas science standards. But they should not allow their personal ideology to override their commitment to accurate reporting.

Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. pledges that it “will act at all times with integrity and honesty… with fairness and straightforwardness of conduct.” It also states that it is “committed to excellence” and “will adhere to the highest standards of journalistic excellence.” Unfortunately, those statements appear to be just words with nothing to back them up. It’s because of reporting like this that the reputation of the news media in this country is so low.

If you want to voice your concerns to Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., email its President and CEO, Donna Barrett, at [email protected] You can also call the company’s headquarters at (334) 293-5800.

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