Has journalism been compromised in the creation-evolution debate?

How the media has handled discussions about Darwin’s ideas


Published: 22 April 2014 (GMT+10)
Do journalists objectively report science, or are they just not skeptical enough?
Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/RichLegg

When the creation-evolution debate gets an airing in the media, the dialogue is sometimes strident and most of the spite comes from the pro-evolution side.

How can I say this with certainty? Until last year, I was a newspaper journalist/sub-editor for more than four decades, and read many letters, emails and website comments on the debate, the majority of which were pro-evolution and most of them peppered with unprintable vitriol aimed at creationists.

By comparison, very few pro-creation commenters resorted to the same sort of unhelpful language.

On three occasions the newspaper for which I worked published opinion pieces I wrote which defended the creation position. But on several other occasions my submissions were rejected and the editor didn’t respond when I asked why.

Why is it that journalists, who are taught to question everything, to be the most skeptical skeptics, rarely question evolution?

Was that censorship? Maybe that’s too strong a word, but no editor accepted my insistence that good journalism (which involves presenting all sides of an argument, for one thing) was missing in the creation-evolution debate. In fact none of my colleagues showed any real interest in the debate. One did accept a copy of Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s The Greatest Hoax on Earth? Refuting Dawkins on evolution. However, I have no idea if that colleague read the book, as he returned it to me without comment.

As a journalist I strove to uphold what many see as the best practice of the craft; fair, accurate and balanced reporting. I increasingly see less of that, and not just in this debate; there is more sensationalism and ‘trial by media’, particularly when someone is accused of a serious crime.

What was journalism previously like?

British Library Board cornwall-gazette
Correspondence on the creation-evolution debate from the Royal Cornwall Gazette of 26 May 1882.

Recently I decided to look at how British newspapers dealt with the creation-evolution debate during Charles Darwin’s time.

While there is an absence of personal abuse in 19th century newspapers, there is spirited debate and a sadly all-too-common theme of clergy joining the pro-evolution side against the voices of Christian believers speaking up for creation.

There was an early attack on the young earth (i.e. biblical) creationist approach in 1860 in London’s Morning Chronicle which was republished in an Australian publication called Empire.1

The unseemly outburst came in a review of Richard Owen’s book Palaeontology, or a systematic summary of extinct animals and their geological relations:

“For our part we think the records of palaeontology beget ideas of the Creator far more grand and impressive than such as can result from a literal acceptation of the Mosaic history of creation. Fully concede the non-literal acceptation of it, paleontological authors would be absolved from the necessity, real or assumed, of veiling their facts so as to escape the censure of critics more enthusiastic than wise, and literature would be spared the infliction of many a stupid book; for, unfortunately, the advocates for a literal acceptation of the Mosaic account of creation are among the wildest of dreamers. It would be difficult to point out one book written by authors of this class up to the level of mediocrity.”
Overall, then, what can be said of newspapers more than a century ago regarding this subject? For one, it appears there was a commitment to giving both sides an airing. Secondly, with some exceptions, there was no rush to disparage a particular viewpoint.

In reports of debates and in letters to the editor—as is often the case today—those on the pro-evolution side sometimes claimed superiority of intellect and understanding.

An exchange of opinions in the Royal Cornwall Gazette in 18822 featured a medical practitioner named John Mugford Quicke3 and an anonymous individual known as ‘University’.

Dr Quicke ranked Darwin alongside Sir Isaac Newton and described those in the church who questioned Darwin’s theories as being as ill-informed as those who opposed Newton’s.

Dr Quicke looked forward to a time when scientific ‘truth’ prevailed:

“But that the theories of Newton or Darwin, or any other scientific discovery, so wonderfully widening our conceptions of time and of space, should be regarded as antagonistic to true religion is curious indeed; and the devout scientist can now easily enough afford to smile at all such irrational and undevout conclusions. He will fearlessly follow truth wheresoever it may lead him, feeling sure that at last it is the only thing that can remain or will prevail, when all error shall be a thing of the past and, it may be, forgotten.”

In a subsequent issue, ‘University’ challenged Dr Quicke on his ‘truth’ statement:

“But according to science all truth and error are natural products. How does Mr Quicke know that the laws by which error is produced will cease to operate? May not, moreover, both truth and falsehood perish by being evolved into something else? Evolution is a most remarkable phenomenon. It develops beliefs and disbeliefs in its own existence, and by the lapse of time it may bring about its own utter annihilation. To reject such a monstrously absurd theory it is only necessary to understand it.”
‘University’ then put Dr Quicke’s logic to the sword:
“If what our scientific wise-heads tell us is true, all reasons are evolved; but it is plain that they have no reason for believing this, there being none for them to have.”

Dr Quicke was given space for a respectful rebuttal and he also added that he saw no conflict with evolution and the Bible, even quoting the names of several supportive clergy.

Another Darwin dissenter Nicholas Whitley was given considerable space in the same newspaper4 to refute evolution and highlighted the real reason for the conflict in the debate:

“We give honour to whom honour is due, but the laudations in the case of Darwin, mainly from his own followers, have taken so extreme a form, that they appear to be rather directed to support his unproved theory of evolution than to honour his memory as a man.”
Newspapers have long been a battleground for debate about the issue of origins.

There is also a report5 from 1860 of an address by Dr John Charles Hall6 who was highly critical of Darwin’s claims. Dr Hall commended Darwin for the way in which he presented his arguments but “he never rose from the perusal of any scientific work more thoroughly disappointed than he was with this”. He had “asked for facts” but instead found “beliefs and surmises”.

In response to Dr Hall’s presentation, Rev. Samuel Earnshaw 7 said Hall had “not accurately represented Mr Darwin’s ideas, and had, therefore, scarcely left a right impression on his hearers’ minds”.

Rev. Earnshaw, who was also a mathematical physicist, would have much in common with Darwin defenders in the church today.

In 1885 a newspaper8 printed a favourable review of Grant Allen’s book Charles Darwin. The editorial praised the author and Darwin profusely but had one piece of mild criticism which was wide of the mark to say the least.

Allen proposed that evolutionary ideas would eventually be applied to all areas of knowledge, an idea the reviewer rejected:

“This we venture to think the least satisfactory part of his book. He overrates, we think, the influence of Darwinian theory of biological evolution upon philosophical ideas of evolution in general.”

I suggest most parties in the 19th century debates about evolutionary ideas would be astounded to see the impact Darwin has had on today’s society.

But they were not afraid of injecting a bit of wit into proceedings even though it may appear a little lame nowadays:

“Can Mr. Gladstone9 possibly think of creating new Peers? Certainly not. Everybody has now discarded altogether the Chimaera of a Creation. The only method by which a Prime Minister can augment the House of Lords with additional Members, at this time of day, is that of Evolution, accomplished by Natural Selection with a view, of course, respecting Hereditary Legislators, to the Survival of the Fittest.”10

Overall, then, what can be said of newspapers more than a century ago regarding this subject? For one, it appears there was a commitment to giving both sides an airing. Secondly, with some exceptions, there was no rush to disparage a particular viewpoint.

But society now, and the media which arguably accurately reflects it, is a much harsher beast and only gives lip service to publishing anything that challenges evolution.

I stand behind a sentiment I have often repeated: Why is it that journalists, who are taught to question everything, to be the most skeptical skeptics, rarely question evolution?

References and notes

  1. Professor Owen's new work, The Empire, 15 June 1860, trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper. Return to text.
  2. British Library Board, Royal Cornwall Gazette, 12 May 1882. Return to text.
  3. Sometimes spelt Quick in census records. Return to text.
  4. British Library Board, Royal Cornwall Gazette, 16 June 1882. Return to text.
  5. British Library Board, Sheffield Independent, 8 September 1860. Return to text.
  6. livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/biogs/E002090b.htm. Return to text.
  7. webspace.yale.edu/chem125/levitron/Earnshaw.html. Return to text.
  8. British Library Board, Pall Mall Gazette, 4 November 1885. Return to text.
  9. William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898) had four separate terms as Prime Minister of Britain. Return to text.
  10. British Library Board, Grantham Journal, 15 November 1884. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

The Greatest Hoax on Earth?
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $8.00
Soft Cover
Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $17.00
Soft Cover
Refuting Compromise, updated & expanded
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $17.00
Soft Cover

Readers’ comments

Charles Y.
The way Creationists are often treated by Evolutionists in the scientific community and in journalism is like someone claiming all cats are black and trying to prove it by killing all cats that aren't black. They insist that no legitimate scientist denies evolution.
Juan V.
I am constantly surprised at how often people comment that taking the position of Creation over Evolution, is an uneducated decision. My surprise is partly based on my own conclusion was through educating myself on the subject! Also, there are many examples of accomplished intellectuals who have taken the position of creation.
This tactic of peer-pressure is anything but intellectual superiority, as far as I can tell.
Jim M.
Matthew C.,

Recently I got an email from a friend that contained the following: "Scientists have discovered that people will believe anything that starts with "scientists have discovered that.""

While intended as a joke, I think it is probably also pretty close to the truth, as your comment would suggest.
Matt T.
Because they are afraid to admit to the reality of a Creator. Ask them, "If I could prove the existence of a Creator would you worship Him"
Dave P.
"The 'wild beast' of untheocratic human government got its power, authority and throne from the Dragon. So it must hew to the party line, the Dragons line."-After Armageddon-God's New World,1953, page 15
Same for the journalist of today just hewing to the same party line, the Dragons line.
John K.
In my six decades plus life span, I have never seen the creation vs. evolution issue mentioned in a newspaper. Maybe it was in a newspaper I received, but, if it was, the location was so inconspicuous that I never saw such an article. That fact, I think, speaks volumes to the place of the creation-evolution issue in the locales I have lived in the USA. Even more disconcerting, I have never heard the issue brought up in church, except if I initiated it. (Oops, I recently have, in the large “Christ-centered” church I attend. However, the very brief comment about Genesis, chapter 1, was negative toward taking it literally, and it was negative toward seeing any science in that chapter.) I think the foundational truth of Genesis is HUGE, but the vocalization of that reality has been almost 100% missing in the churches I have attended through the years, as well as in the newspapers to which I have subscribed. As a Christian, it makes me feel like my thoughts about the issue are really at variance with what the majority, and the learned, both within and without the church think. (I, myself, have three college degrees.)
Matthew C.
A thing that annoys me is the use of "scientists" in many articles on evolution. Just read another article this morning where it indicated that "scientists believe" some "fact" of evolution. Often reporters don't say "some scientists" or even "many scientists" - it is just "scientists" which gives the impression that all true scientists believe this way. Yet we know there are many scientists who don't accept evolution. This article was about faith vs. science but no mention was made of the faith it takes to believe in evolution.
Errol B.
I too have encountered suspicious editing in our local paper with SMS’s & letters to the editor. At first it seemed fair when I started responding to atheists’ regular ridicule of Christianity, but when I started ‘playing tennis’ I found their responses reduced to name calling and accusing me of using rhetoric, anything but answering my challenges (coal seam Z formations, polystrate fossils, C14 in diamonds etc) which is rather ironic. Lately they only seem to publish my comments not directly related to the creation evolution debate. The good thing is, the atheists seem to have moved to defensive mode & their ridicule has become rare.
Author of 1984 & Animal farm wrote: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” The following quote has also been attributed to Orwell: "The people will believe what the media tells them they believe".
Mike R.
Great article. Enjoyed seeing the historical perspective.

Would like to add that the media bias has grown extreme, and is certainly not limited to the Creation/Evolution debate. There is general world-view of atheism that dominates the media establishment, and it permeates their coverage of everything - particularly in regards to politics.

For any that haven't done so, it is well past time to question whether or not you are getting an accurate portrayal of the world as it really is whenever you watch your evening news; or rather, or if you are being fed the world that the editors wish to be.

It is also time to take a hard look at what is happening in schools of journalism which make the atheist/government-knows-best view of the world so overwhelmingly dominant in that business.

Even in today's world of social media, and alternate media outlets, I am astonished at how easily the news media drives what the topics of discussion are, what important topics are completely off the radar, and what the "correct" position is on any particular subject.

With such an important influence over the culture, it certainly my prayer that more Christians can find their way into journalism schools and news rooms; and perhaps that more Christian oriented schools of journalism can be launched.

Having said that, much gratitude must be expressed to Creation Ministries, and similar organizations who work so hard to penetrate the darkness with the light of truth. It is a much needed, and much appreciated effort!
rodney A.
Of all the debates and issues concerning evolution, I find the one reality that is missing all the time is the act of faith. By faith Abraham believed God, faith cannot be measured by science, it cannot be grasped at by anyone, and it is impossible to measure it. Just to read and believe the bible requires faith, little wonder that the scientific world has great difficulty with the bible, they can't change the truths held in faith. Hebrews I.I says, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,- as such science will never -see- faith, yet people involved in science can have faith in GODS ORDER OF HISTORY. It is by this faith in gods word that we - UNDERSTAND THAT THE WORLDS WERE FRAMED BY THE WORD OF GOD, Adam and Eve partook of the tree of -KNOWLEDGE- this is the basis of science, but they did not get to the tree of life, thus scientific knowledge will never bring us to the tree of life and all living things THAT REQUIRES FAITH IN GODS HOLY WORDS.

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