« BBC vs. New York Times on Middle East | Main | Upcoming Talk on Race and Genetics »

Evolution and Intelligent Design in Kansas

In looking at divisive issues in the media, the debate over the Theory of Evolution is never far from the forefront. The population in the United States is almost evenly divided on the issue, with just less than 50 percent saying that evolution is well supported by science. One particular setting of this debate is the state of Kansas, which over the last seven to eight years has had a tumultuous relationship with the topic, particularly in its treatment in public schools. This entry examines the differences in treatment of the Kansas evolution debate by two sources. The first is a Kansas newspaper, the Topeka Capital-Journal. The second is the BBC. These sources were picked with the intent of comparing a relatively small, local, and parochial viewpoint with that of a very large, international, removed news source.

Chronicle:
The articles examined for this project were taken exclusively from the online archives of the two sources. Despite being very geographically removed, the BBC had a fair number of articles on the topic. That said, the Topeka Capital-Journal had more articles pertaining to the evolution debate, and subsequently was more represented. The articles examined from each source are as follows:
Topeka Capital-Journal:
"Science Revisited: Critics say move is religion in disguise" -- 9 Nov, 05
-Approval of science teaching that stresses the gaps in the Theory of Evolution cited as really a move to allow teaching of religion in schools.
"Education board acts Tuesday" -- 6 Nov, 05
-An overview of the future decision by the Kansas school board over the role of evolution in schools, with some eye towards the national criticism leveled on Kansas over the 1999 decision.
"Science words can't be lifted" -- 27 Oct, 05
-The National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association informed the Kansas State Department of Eduction that they would not be allowed to use copyrighted material belonging to the two groups.
"Design advocates fire back at laureates" -- 29 Sep, 05
-Local opponents of evolution retaliate in an open letter to the criticism they received from a group of Nobel laureates from planning to de-emphasize evolution.
"Key players in the science hearings" -- 1 May, 05
-Profiles of Kansas school board members, as well as attorneys and witness for either side in the evolution debate.
"Evolution in school remains a debate" -- 18 Aug, 03
-Background of the local electoral politics of the Kansas school board that was driven to the front of public view by the evolution debate.
"Evolution debate tops state's stories" -- 27 Dec, 99
-Retrospective summary of the 1999 Kansas school board debates over the teaching of evolution.
"Decision lampooned, lauded" -- 12 Oct, 99
-Information about different local and national groups that both approved and disapproved of Kansas' actions in 1999.
"Back-door approach suggested" -- 20 Aug, 99
-Legislator Adkins proposes requiring education in evolution as an entrance requirement to Kansas state universities in a way to coerce school into teaching evolution after it was de-emphasized in the 1999 evolution debate.

BBC:
"Victors hail US evolution ruling" -- 21 Dec, 05
-The ruling of the Supreme Court case on the teaching of Intelligent Design in a Dover, PA school that strongly condemned the teaching of any creationist viewpoint and ruled it illegal.
"Evolution suffers Kansas setback" -- 9 Nov, 05
-Overview of Kansas' proposed changes to evolution policy, past changes, and the court case on the topic of Intelligent Design in schools in Dover, PA.
"Bush weighs into evolution debate" -- 9 Aug, 05
-Coverage of President Bush's perspective on the evolution/Intelligent Design debate in schools, how he thinks Intelligent Design should be presented, and what this means for the rising power of conservative evangelicals in the US.
"US school battle over evolution" -- 6 May, 05
-Background of the arguments and reactions of the groups in favor and opposed to the required teaching of evolution in Kansas schools.
"Evolution struggles back into US schools" -- 5 Aug, 00
-How school board members more in favor of the teaching of evolution in schools are coming to power in reaction to the 1999 decision on the topic.
"Kansas rejects Theory of Evolution" -- 11 Aug, 99
-How Kansas decided to not require teaching of macro-evolution (inter-species) in favor of micro-evolution (intra-species), and how this compares with similar events elsewhere in the US.

Context:
The BBC and the Topeka Capital-Journal are two vastly different sources in almost every regard, from reach, to scope, to ownership.

The BBC is the largest media group in Britain. Originally privately owned, it has been nationalized, and is essentially a public form of media. Even though it receives almost 75 percent of its budget from the government, the BBC is charged with the goal of being independent of both commercial and political influence. Without the need to rely solely on the commercial success of their programing, the BBC is more free to report on issues that are socially pertinent, if less immediately entertaining. Not needing to answer to any specific owners also removes pressure on BBC journalists to report stories in a light favorable to the views of those in charge. This allows for fewer biases, though there has been some criticism of the BBC regarding their coverage of certain issues, in particular their treatment of the Middle East crisis and the invasion of Iraq. The BBC is very much an international group, with readers, listeners, viewers, etc. It is known as a very secular media outlet, with virtually no religious leanings and no official religious affilitation. This broad base of viewpoints helps keep the reporting objective, and propels the BBC to cover more and more international news and events.

The Topeka Capital-Journal is a much smaller media outlet. It is privately owned by the Morris Communications Corporation, based in Augusta, Georgia. Morris Communications also owns five other newspapers in Kansas, and a total of 27 nationally. Along with their newspaper operations, the Topeka Capital-Journal is partnered with two local AM and FM radio stations, and a local broadcast television station. Collectively, these four media entities call themselves "Topeka's Total Convergence Team," and work aggressively to cross promote one another. This group competes for their share of consumers in the greater Topeka area, and as a result of their close ties, each is answerable to the others. This puts pressure on the reporters at the Topeka Capital-Journal to not offend their readers, upset their owners, or undermine the views espoused by their partners. These pressures seem as though they would have the impact of softening the reporting, steering coverage towards topics and views that will reenforce the views of, and in turn attract more, readers.

Analysis and Discussion:
In looking at the presentation of the debate on the respective rolls of the Theory of Evolution and Intelligent Design in Kansas schools, the BBC and the Topeka Capital-Journal present the issue in two very different ways. The Topeka Capital-Journal approaches evolution as seriously in doubt, and looks to Intelligent Design as a viable alternative. Rather than examining the issue with a broader scope, the Topeka Capital-Journal looked almost exclusively at the build up to, proceedings of, and aftermath of school board meetings. Issues such as the views and appeals of the presidents of the state universities and whether the schools would still be allowed to use copyrighted materials from national science education groups were heavily covered. Almost ignored were issues concerning the constitutionality of teaching the creationist, and in turn religious view of Intelligent Design in public school. This is remarkable, considering a previous ruling that declared a Louisiana law that required the teaching of Intelligent Design along with evolution in science classes unconstitutional. Events such as this would appear to resolve the issue before it could even begin. Ignoring these aspects of the debate appears to be an attempt to appeal to the sentiments of readers.

The BBC, on the other hand, took a much broader view of the Kansas school board hearings. They pointed out previous pertinent Supreme Court cases, and treated the Theory of Evolution as topic of debate that had already been resolved in the scientific world. What seemed to concern BBC writers the most is not this particular instance of evolution as a problem, but the trends it pointed to. Remarks from President Bush advocating the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools to better equip students to understand the conflict at hand were pointed to as a sign of the rise in political power of evangelical conservatives. That such a massive segment of the American population has doubts about the veracity of a theory that is otherwise widely embraced in other developed nations as one of the key unifying concepts in biology led to speculation on America's future in international scientific advancement. The BBC was less concerned with the background of the lawyers arguing for each side of the issue, or the specifics of what would be included in various standardized exams as it was with the trends it pointed to in American society, politics, and economy.

These differences are not particularly surprising. A cynic would say the Topeka Capital-Journal was only reporting what it thought would draw more readers, regardless of the hard facts on the issue, and that the BBC was reporting them as a bunch of religious zealots bent on returning biology in Kansas to the 19th century. But there are other factors at work. The particulars of how school board members voted and the stances other local officials took are important to Topeka readers who want to hold elected officials accountable for representing their views. The short term economic impact of rewriting curricula and standardized tests matter far more in Topeka than in London. On the same token, a BBC reader in Scandinavia has nothing at stake when it comes to the opinions of Kansas policy makers, and the immediate budgetary woes carry no weight. The long term implications of the American political mentality and the ensuing economics make much more of a difference. In total, the differences in reporting style appear to stem from several different causes. Perhaps the most important is the proportion of readers in close proximately to the issue. While there is certainly cause for concern with the Topeka Capital-Journal's lack of impartiality and scope on the issue, the BBC cannot be rightly expected to cover the personal level details of such a localized debate in a media outlet with such massive global reach. Each source of news needs to cater to its readers, and each takes a different approach to doing so.