When the Conflict Narrative Doesn’t Fit
‘Conflict does attract readers. But pursued as a virtue unto itself, it can distort news stories and skew public understanding.’
Pity the reporter assigned to cover the culture wars without the time, space or resources to do the job right. That, at least, looked like the backstory for an October 22, 2005 New York Times news story titled, “Intelligent Design Is Not for the Classroom, Cornell President Says.” Armed with fewer than 500 words, reporter Michelle York recapped Hunter R. Rawlings III’s nearly 4,500-word State of the University address, in which he decided to devote the entire speech he delivered to the Cornell community to an issue he defined as “the challenge to science posed by religiously based opposition to evolution.” In the first paragraph of her story, York quotes Rawlings calling the campaign to add intelligent design to the science curriculum “very dangerous,” noting he “denounced intelligent design ‘as a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea.’” Further down, York cites recent statistics on the percentage of Americans who favor teaching creationism instead of evolution, then sums up the conflict between religion and science in a sentence or two.
The story ends with a quote from John G. West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a preeminent hub for intelligent design theory. West says a “college president is in a unique position to create an atmosphere of free speech,” but Rawlings seemed to be “fanning the flames of intolerance” and “implying that faculty don’t have the right to discuss ideas.”
Rawlings’ mistake? Stating that the “invasion of science by intelligent design embodies … above all a cultural issue, not a scientific one.” York’s mistake? Dumbing down a complex issue with polarizing, oversimplified and lazy reporting. But this isn’t one reporter’s problem. The New York Times’s story—like most articles about the “clash” between religion and science—repeated the miscues and misapprehensions that have characterized coverage of this topic for almost a century.
Newsroom realities—including a shrinking news hole, more deadline pressures, and lack of in-depth knowledge—are part of the problem. But these don’t justify ill-suited frames, intellectual timidity, and rote reporting that typifies much of what is written in general and on this subject in particular. What happens with coverage of this topic reflects many of the pitfalls that plague mainstream media. Journalists rely on narrative structures that mask more than they reveal and short-circuit the kinds of contextualization, sourcing and analysis that can provide new insights on hot-button issues and move public discussion forward.
Journalism, Religion and Science
The long-standing antagonism between the domains of religion and journalism is described in a recent essay, “Promoting a Secular Standard: Secularization and Modern Journalism, 1870-1930,” by sociologist Richard W. Flory contained in “The Secular Revolution,” edited by Christian Smith. Beginning in the late 19th century, publishers, editors and journalism educators “actively sought to minimize and ultimately undermine traditional religion,” Flory argues. In its place, they advanced science, which was seen as progressive and inclusive, to be the authoritative voice for modern society. Their reasons were twofold. The first was economic: Pressure to sell advertising and boost circulation ended the need for advocacy journalism, including sectarian religious coverage. In other words, newspapers now needed to reach the widest possible public. The second reason was that an increasingly professionalized and secularized society considered legal and scientific models more prestigious than those based in the supernatural.
By diminishing the importance of faith and promoting science, journalists demonstrated that their field was “best suited to succeed religion in the modern world,” according to Flory. He also explains that newspapers adopted the conflict narrative to improve their commercial prospects, and editors encouraged reporters to write colorful, lively stories. Charles Merz, who later became an editor of The New York Times, advised reporters in 1925 to make conflict a key element in their stories. He observed presciently (given the column inches subsequently allotted to clergy sex scandals), that “If theology and religion envy sex and crime and sigh for front-page space, all that theology and religion need to do is produce a good personal encounter.”
Conflict does attract readers. But pursued as a virtue unto itself, it can distort news stories and skew public understanding. Not everything fits a “he said, she said” structure, and not all arguments are epistemologically equal. As Rawlings said in his talk, evolution is a scientific theory—a hypothesis, and that is demonstrated by observation or experiment. Intelligent design is a religious belief. It is a theory according to its definition of being “an idea or belief arrived at by conjecture or speculation.” But that is a different understanding of theory than that used in science. Proponents of intelligent design obfuscate an important distinction by blurring the two meanings of theory.
That’s why Rawlings and West talk past each other: What is happening is not a conflict; it’s a disconnect.
Imposing an Ill-Fitting Narrative
So why do reporters use the conflict narrative so frequently in covering this story? It’s familiar, reliable and a lot easier than research and original thinking. In this case, it plays out the trope of a culture war, propagated by the catchy notion of a “red-state/blue state divide.” Do we think that Merz ever imagined that conflict would become the primary frame for reporting most of the news? I doubt it. In his own writings, he emphasized a newspaper’s responsibility to the pursuit of truth. Writing for The New Republic in 1920, he decried the Times’s coverage of the Russian Revolution as “a case of seeing, not what was there, but what men wanted to see.”
The debate about the teaching of evolution and intelligent design shouldn’t be cast, in the words of my first managing editor, as a “pissing match.” Rather it’s a philosophical discussion about how we know what we know. Unfortunately, many of the sources who could offer thoughtful comments on how to constructively discuss this aspect are rarely quoted. The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, The Center for the Study of Science and Religion, the Counterbalance Foundation, as well as numerous smaller and more religiously located groups, have worked in this field for as along as half a century. But their speakers, resources and publications are rarely cited.
For a helpful case of art reflecting—and besting—reality, reporters might watch the thoughtful treatment of the evolution vs. intelligent design debate on a recent (October 16, 2005) episode of the TV drama, “The West Wing.” Presidential candidate Matt Santos is dogged by reporters who want to know his position on the issue. Although his Democratic Party handlers advise him not to comment, Santos, piqued by the media’s insistent questioning, says he believes in a God, whom he assumes is intelligent. The subsequent media frenzy forces Santos to clarify his position during a meeting with parents and teachers at a local school where the issue is hotly debated.
Santos passionately describes his faith in God. But he is equally ardent about his acceptance of science and the theory of evolution. He explains that evolution, a scientific theory, should be taught in public schools, whereas religious instruction should come from the home or a religious institution. He suggests that those who are unhappy with that division of tasks should seek redress in the democratic process. The crowd—even those who disagreed—cheered wildly.
The Cornell University president’s speech, which made similar points, also elicited strong support. In an interview I did with him after his speech, Rawlings said he’d received “an overwhelmingly positive response,” but he would have preferred media coverage that more accurately reported the address. “I recognize the media has a tough job of summarizing arguments,” he said. “But journalists should be extremely wary of oversimplifying and emphasizing polarities instead of nuanced arguments.”
Were I still working as a reporter, I’d visit Ithaca, New York to see how issues of religion and science play out in Cornell’s classrooms, dormitories and houses of worship. I’d explore student, faculty and staff response to Rawlings’ contention that both faith and science are important to the university. Then I’d visit Ithaca itself to see whether and how these issues surface in public schools and community settings. And if I were an editor, I’d ask my reporters to step back and consider how they, as purveyors of this narrative frame, might be embedded in the “conflict” and its outcome. One step back could be the first step forward.
Diane Winston is the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California. She writes for the “Faith Front” column of the Los Angeles Times and reported at The (Baltimore) Sun, The Dallas Times Herald, and The (Raleigh) News and Observer.