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Understanding Bias in Coverage of Intelligent Design

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

September 30, 2005

Follow-up on Columbia Journalism Review article and New York Times Series

Have the efforts of the intelligent design movement been thwarted by a secular and liberal news media? Across coverage of politics, many conservative leaders believe that the overwhelming majority of reporters, editors, and media producers favor a liberal point of view. In terms of evidence, however, conservatives rarely cite verifiable data indicating systematic patterns of liberal bias in coverage of public affairs. Instead, conservatives rely on selective anecdotes and examples as support for their claims. Still, over the past twenty years, the consistent drum beat from conservatives about the dangers of an allegedly liberal press, in combination with the news media’s own tendency to critically reflect on such a possibility, have contributed to a growing belief among the general public that the news media is indeed biased.

Social scientists, however, have had difficulty in reaching a consensus about the ideological nature of political coverage. One group of scholars infer liberal media bias from surveys that indicate journalists favor the left in their political preferences, and are more likely than the public to vote Democratic in elections. Yet, as others point out, surveys of reporters’ political preferences do no offer direct evidence of bias in coverage. In fact, it is more likely that professional norms that dictate balance and impartiality, combined with the need to maintain credibility with audiences, override the personal political preferences of journalists. Some scholars point to various methodological problems in reliably assessing ideological bias specific to social issues like abortion where it is difficult to define a clear objective standard by which to evaluate coverage.

Relative to election campaigns, though there are problems in accounting for incumbent and front runner status, it is methodologically easier to evaluate coverage by a standard where candidates should receive roughly equal time and fairness. Several large scale studies have found coverage relative to Democratic and Republican candidates to be neutral or balanced, but other studies have found instances where coverage favors Democrats and other cases where coverage favors Republicans. Hoping to resolve these apparent inconsistencies, in a published meta-analysis, one team of researchers compared statistically fifty-nine previous studies of Presidential election coverage, concluding that the accumulated evidence did not point to ideological bias in newspaper coverage, showed only a slight liberal bias in TV coverage, and actually indicated a slight conservative bias at the major news magazines.

Sources of Bias in Coverage of ID

For most issues, a dogmatic belief in a liberal press misses the mark. In many cases, there are biases in news coverage, but they have little to do with political ideology. Instead, skewed coverage is more likely to derive from the professional norms of journalists, and the market priorities of news organizations. In the cover article for the September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, co-author Chris Mooney and I evaluate news coverage of intelligent design, and detail a leading example where the professional and organizational biases of a supposedly liberal and secular media actually favor directly the goals of religious conservatives.

In the article, we note that, for example, unlike the debate over abortion, there is a clear objective standard set by scientific consensus statements, the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and past court decisions that journalists can use in evaluating the scientific legitimacy of the ID movement. Yet, the news media often simply balances the claims of ID proponents against those of scientists, with little interpretation or context for the reader.

In the article, we note that as school boards, state legislatures, and the courts pay increasing attention to the claims of the ID movement, journalists rely heavily on the agenda of these political venues to guide coverage decisions. As a consequence, there is a rise in media attention to ID, but perhaps more importantly, as science is debated within these policy arenas, there is a transfer across news beats, with coverage no longer dominated by context-oriented science writers, and instead the subject of stories contributed by political reporters, opinion writers, and TV journalists. We reached this conclusion after systematically reading through seventeen months of recent news coverage at national and local newspapers, conducting an analysis of opinion page content at the papers, and reviewing relevant TV news transcripts.

As this shift in news beats takes place, coverage de-emphasizes the type of technical backgrounder favored by science writers. These context-oriented articles typically highlight accurately the overwhelming scientific consensus in support of evolution. In contrast, political reporters and television news correspondents are more likely to cover the issue through the lens of political strategy and gamesmanship. Though these types of stories provide important details about the tactics, fundraising, and communication strategies of the ID movement, they often also ignore scientific background, and instead carefully balance arguments from both sides, thereby lending credibility to the claim by ID proponents that there is a growing “controversy” over evolutionary theory.

Paralleling the rise in attention from political reporters is the increased discussion of ID in editorials, op-eds, and letters-to-the-editor. In the editorial section of newspapers, the content often reflects editors’ wishes to publish a plurality of views, and is therefore readily accessible to the carefully packaged PR tactics of the ID movement. (If these trends in coverage of the ID controversy sound familiar, it’s because they are roughly generalizable across several types of issues, as I have previously written about in reference to the stem cell and climate change debates.)

The New York Times Series

In late August, as we were finalizing author proofs of our CJR article, the New York Times ran the first of a three day front page series on intelligent design. The series was notable because it marked a climax in rising attention to ID across the summer, and served as a leading example of how different reporters are likely to define the debate in different ways. It also highlighted the important, but not always predictable influence the Times can have on other media including blogs and cable news.

The Sunday, August 22 article by national desk reporter Jodi Wilogren chronicled the political maneuvering of the Discovery Institute, the personalities and back story behind its founding, and the key donors financing the organization. If evaluated as stand alone coverage, though Sunday’s article provided valuable details about the politics behind the debate, it suffered from a lack of scientific context, and would have been typical of the type of coverage by political reporters that we heavily criticize.

Yet it was clear from science writers Kenneth Chang’s follow up article on Monday, and Cornelia Dean’s article on Tuesday that the Times conceived of the series as marshaling the specialized expertise of its staff, covering the issue in a way that few other news organizations can match. In Monday’s article, while opening with a detailed outline of the three-pronged ID argument against evolution, Chang also carefully noted that ID does not offer a rival theory but merely argues in the negative. Though he stopped short of outright dismissing intelligent design, (the Times saved this for an Editorial Observer column that ran the next day), Chang devoted considerable space to the details of evolutionary theory, contextualizing and countering the arguments of ID proponents. Dean’s Tuesday reporting potentially broke new ground by spotlighting the views of prominent Christian scientists such as Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller, who although they both strongly reject ID, also feel it is important to speak out about their faith, even when faced with a dominant culture of agnosticism among their colleagues. As a denouement to the series, Dean’s article seemed to convey an important moral lesson for the reader, a compromise interpretation that science and religion are not incompatible. (For an alternative take on the series, go here.)

Reaction from Scientists at Blogs

Despite the comprehensive nature of the Times series, misplaced journalistic balance is often in the eye of the beholder, and in response to the series, several blogs maintained by university scientists lit up with criticism, especially of Kenneth Chang’s coverage. Responding to remarks that his reporting gave undue credibility to ID, in a post on PZ Meyer’s Pharyngula blog, Chang shed light on the Times thinking in putting together the series: “As for why the Times is writing about intelligent design...it’s because the I.D. people have convinced a handful of states to include aspects of it in their curriculum standards. That makes it newsworthy, regardless of the science. For those of you who are well versed in this debate and know everything that I didn’t put in, here is a point I want to make: this article was not for you....Rather, the intended audience is the many, many people who...don’t know what I.D. is or even care much about science in general. The idea was to provide these readers with an introduction to the subject at a level that they could comfortably follow from beginning to end. For these people, I don’t think the impression that they come away with is that I.D. and evolution are on even footing.”

At the blog Cosmic Variance, Chang again defended his work, noting that his article featured roughly 1400 words contrasting ID claims with deep background on evolutionary theory. In a follow-up post, Sean Carroll, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Chicago, and one of the five university scientists who maintain Cosmic Variance, responded to Chang by taking him to task for the lede paragraph of the article. Carroll argued that few readers were likely to read the entire Times article, and therefore, the following opening lines were especially misleading: “At the heart of the debate over intelligent design is this question: Can a scientific explanation of the history of life include the actions of an unseen higher being?” Instead, argued Carroll, the Times should have framed the opening of the news article around the angle of epistemological authority, emphasizing that the debate really turned on the following question: “Should the content of high-school science courses be decided by scientists, or by religiously-motivated public-relations campaigns?”

Chang’s subsequent reply to Carroll provides even more insight into the types of space, time, and editorial influences that often color how science is portrayed in the news: “O.K., I finally see what the hang-up over the beginning of the story is. In an early draft, the rhetorical question was quickly followed by Doug Erwin’s quote, to make it clear that the standard scientific view is No, of course not. In the course of editing, other material was inserted between the question and the quote, and so that intended connection was lost. Perhaps I should have tried to insert as the second sentence something like, ‘For most scientists, the answer is an obvious no, and that is the end of the debate.’”

The Secondary Impacts of the New York Times Series

Few news organizations can equal the New York Times coverage for quality and depth, and considering the agenda-setting influence of the paper, it is likely that an unintended consequence of the series was to simply boost overall media attention to the topic, furthering the attempts of ID proponents to achieve the illusion of scientific controversy. Moreover, in piggybacking on the Times coverage, it is not clear that accuracy was the first priority for many news organizations, especially for the cable news networks where entertainment, drama, and conflict are often prized.

As Mooney and I write in CJR, cable news is intrinsically adversarial; truth is reached only through argumentation. In fact, the format of cable news inherently favors ID’s attacks on evolution by making journalistic “balance” inescapable. Much like a presidential debate, the arguments offered on these shows are usually not scored on substance but on performance and style. Moreover, the cable news talk show format assumes that an issue can be decided within a few minutes, and implies an image of two coequal, warring camps. For example at CNN, on the same Monday the Times series ran, Lou Dobbs featured a debate between opposing members of the Kansas school board. On Tuesday, Larry King Live, a program infamous for providing an uncritical forum for a host of fringe claims ranging from psychics to UFOs, featured what King called a “three-on-three” panel of guests to debate ID that included Deepak Chopra, U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, megachurch pastor John MacArthur, Discovery Institute spokesperson Jay Richards, U.S. Congressman Christopher Shays, and philosopher Barbara Forrest. The Discovery Institute’s Richards used the recent media attention to his rhetorical advantage, communicating a certain self satisfaction: “We think teachers should be free to talk about this [ID], and frankly, I don’t think that it can be suppressed. It’s now very much a public discussion, evidenced by the fact that you’re talking about it on your show tonight.”

Outlook for Trends in ID Coverage

So what is the outlook for news coverage of intelligent design over the next few months? Generalizing about trends in media coverage is often difficult since coverage of any one issue depends also on many other competing issues and events. Absent the ability to forecast all of the possible major events that were in store for September, we predicted in our CJR article that the month would bring even more of the same type of troubling “he said, she said” strategy coverage from political reporters. Our prediction was based on the ID-related political events on the horizon, including a pending Federal court case and local school district referendum in Pennsylvania, and political trouble brewing across other states.

Yet, the media tsunami of Hurricane Katrina has washed most other political issues including ID off the media agenda. Similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina has made many of the issues that we considered important yesterday, seem comparatively trivial today. I suspect that heavy attention to ID during August was in part a product of the media attempting to fill the major news hole left by a vacationing President and Congress. By constructing ID into the latest social wedge issue, news organizations, especially cable news, sought to hold the attention of Americans during an otherwise slow news month. In any case, if the cycle of attention to ID has shifted into a downward phase, then science advocates are better off. In the meantime, there needs to be further reflection on the role of the news media in fanning the flames of this debate, and there needs to be more attention to how journalists can overcome professional and organizational bias to more accurately cover a political conflict like ID where there is a clear objective standard by which to evaluate many claims.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.