I recently published a piece about a creationist publicity stunt that was covered in The Guardian. As I noted in my essay, I couldn't imagine why a reputable media outlet like The Guardian would opt to run such a story. So, instead of merely wondering, I decided to try and find out.
I wrote to Amanda Holpuch, the author of the article, and Stuart Millar, The Guardian's deputy editor in the United States, to see if they would be willing to engage in a conversation about the story. Neither of them had the courtesy to acknowledge my emails, let alone to discuss the issue. I thought professional respect alone would have been enough to generate a response -- but I was wrong. I then wrote to Matt Seaton, The Guardian's op-ed editor, to see if he might be interested in publishing an essay about the issue. To his credit, he agreed to look at such a piece, but then he rejected it. (I can't fault him for that!)
Rather than drop the issue, I've decided to share what I wrote:
There's a fine line between the media reporting and the media making the news. When a reporter refuses to divulge a source, for instance, that action might eclipse the story originally reported. Or when, in 1971, The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, the newspaper became part of the story.
In general, however, reporters are supposed to inform readers about the world around them in as unbiased a fashion as possible. Similarly, editors are supposed to ensure that what gets published is both accurate and meaningful. At least that's the way things are supposed to work in media outlets taken seriously by the general public.
Yes, there are scandal and gossip sheets as well as more tabloids than you can shake a stick at, but no one takes them seriously; not as a source of news anyway. They're read for their shock value and their headlines grab our attention. The extreme nature of their content is why people turn to them but, regardless of how well they might sell, we can't confuse them with reputable news sources.
When I saw a recent story in The Guardian, I began to worry that a paper that as recently as 2011 was named National Newspaper of the Year by the British Press Awards had opted to forgo news coverage for sensationalism. I hope I'm mistaken and that the article that so grabbed my attention was a simple aberration.
That article was entitled, "Creationist stakes $10,000 on contest between Bible and evolution: Creator of Literal Genesis Trial believes people who argue in favor of evolution are at a scientific disadvantage."
The article goes on to explain that a person with no formal education in evolutionary theory (he "started making public arguments in favor of creationism about 13 years ago, after reading an article about evolution in the newspaper") is challenging scientists to debate the merits of creationism and evolution. Given that this particular person has been doing this exact same thing for well over a decade, I fail to see the news value that merits providing publicity for this stunt.
The fact that both the reporter and her editor failed to recognize this attention-seeking gimmick for what it was, isn't what bothers me the most. By publishing this "story" as straight news, it was published on-line in the "world news" section, and by refusing to interview anyone other than the purveyor of the stunt, readers are left with the sense that there's something real here.
The fact is, however, that reality is dramatically different from the situation the article depicted. The article leaves readers with the mistaken impression, an impression that creationists work diligently to foster, that there's a conflict between religion and science.
Had the reporter scratched the surface she would easily have discovered that the battle isn't between religion and science, but between individuals with differing religious world views. The vast majority of the world's religious community is actually fully comfortable with the concept of evolution and has gone on the record saying exactly that. The Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and many more have issued doctrinal statements opposed to the sort of creationism promoted by the article and in favor of evolution.
Additionally, more than 13,500 clergy members in the United States have signed one of The Clergy Letters sponsored by The Clergy Letter Project. Each of these letters explains how evolutionary theory is fully compatible with deeply held religious principles. For example, The Christian Clergy Letter with its 12,851 signatures explains "Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts." The Letter goes on to "urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge."
The Buddhist Letter opens with a quotation from the Dalai Lama which makes the relationship between science and religion perfectly clear: "If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims or adopt them as metaphor."
Similarly, in its 2008 book, "Science, Evolution, and Creationism," the National Academy of Sciences makes the same point in clear and concise prose: "science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist."
The reality is that peace has broken out in the war between religion and science -- but too many reporters have failed to take note. Instead they're still being fooled by fundamentalists who want to keep the fight alive for their own personal and partisan gain.
Battles make better headlines than peaceful coexistence. Reporting on false battles, encouraging people to continue to believe that they must choose between their religious inclinations and their scientific proclivities, is not only wrong but it exacerbates the problems arising from the fact that we live in a society in which scientific illiteracy is rampant.
The readers of The Guardian deserve better than this.