Intelligently Designed: Creationism's News Appeal

By Caudill, Edward | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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Intelligently Designed: Creationism's News Appeal

Caudill, Edward, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly

Advocates of "intelligent design" have gained media coverage for their cause despite having little support in the scientific community. This study of news about ID-specifically, the 2005 controversy and trial in Dover, Pennsylvania-shows the story's appeal to press values such as conflict, drama, balance, and fairness. News was framed in terms of politics and culture wars, which appealed to the press impulse toward balance and fairness. The coverage illustrates how an idea or movement of questionable motive or dubious value could win coverage when media adhere to professional standards such as fairness and balance.

Those who condemn the so-called science of intelligent design have done so with appropriate deference to canons of scientific integrity - verifiability and reliability, empirical evidence, even the meaning of the word "science." But few have considered the movement's success in winning media coverage by appealing to press values, such as conflict, drama, balance, and fairness. The presentation of intelligent design in terms of enduring cultural and journalistic values promotes its coverage as a reasonable alternative to Darwinian evolution.1 The 2005 cases in Dover, Pennsylvania, and Kansas are a window on the media appeal of ID, which continues to resonate with the American public and with American media.2


In Topeka, Kansas, the State Board of Education adopted science standards in 2005 that treated evolution as a flawed theory. The 2004 election had resulted in a 6-4 majority favoring new high school science standards, including redefining science to encompass supernatural explanations, presenting intelligent design as an alternative to evolution, teaching alleged scientific controversies about evolution, and telling students that evolution is theory and not fact. In November 2005, the board gave final approval to the standards, which supporters said would permit open, healthy debate about strengths and weaknesses of evolution. The creationist Discovery Institute and the Kansas Intelligent Design Network had been strong supporters of the standards and the campaign to adopt them. In August 2006, four of the six state board members who had voted for the standards were voted out of office. The newly constituted board rescinded the new standards in February 2007, and again defined science as "natural explanations."3

In Dover, the conflict began in 2004 with Christian fundamentalists who believed in a 6,000-year-old earth. They saw life's complexity as scientific proof of an "intelligent designer" of life. On the other side, a number of parents in the school system saw teaching ID as teaching religion in public schools. The legal issue began to take form in August 2004 when the local school board accepted a donation of several hundred copies of a book titled Of Pandas and People, which would not be used directly in science class but would be available as a reference book for students. The book advocated intelligent design and criticized Darwin's theory. In October 2004, the board voted to require ninth-grade biology teachers to mention intelligent design as an alternative to evolution and to inform interested students about the availability of Of Pandas and People. Eleven parents announced a lawsuit on December 14, 2004, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, based on the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. In January 2005, the board directed teachers of ninth-grade biology to read a statement to the class before teaching the section on evolution. It read, in part:

Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence....

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

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