I think sometimes reporters and news organizations don’t realize that alarmist reporting, while it gets viewers and comment, can have real negative impacts. Here is a recent example. Last week the BBC put up a story, “Call for creationism in science” which suggested that Michael Reiss, the director of education for the Royal Society in the UK, actually supported putting creationism in science classes. Now, if you read the story carefully you would realize that he wasn’t saying that at all – his remarks are pretty much standard teachers-should-be-ready-to-address-this-if-it-comes up stuff, which I believe is the considered position of the NAS, NCSE, Brian Alters and all other serious people who work to improve evolution education and block creationist attempts to subvert it.
But, the headline and some incensed remarks from another professor (who was probably just called up and asked by the reporter, “Hey, this guy supports putting creationism in science classes, what do you think?”) were enough to create a brouhaha.
Now, according to this story today, “‘Creationism’ biologist quits job” What moron writes these headlines!?! (it’s usually not the reporter) Reiss is a biologist and education expert, he was advocating a mainstream (and correct) position, and he loses a position because of it?
I guess this isn’t the hugest deal in the world, the position was probably volunteer/add-on to his main job at the Institution of Education (which he is returning to). But still, nothing was gained and a fair bit was lost from this. As a result of the BBC’s alarmist reporting, some people think the Royal Society supports creationism (which is ludicrous); others think that scientists and the Royal Society are so intolerant so as to want to impose a ban on any discussion of creationism, even a teacher explaining the mainstream scientific view on the issue in response to a student question; Michael Reiss is at the very least feeling alienated from a portion of the scientific community, after being bashed for just doing his job and trying to help them out; and the creationists are crowing. Not a good show.
My 2 cents: as with everything, you’ve got to be skeptical. As we like to say, if a creationist says the sky is blue, go outside and check. But similarly, if a news story headline confirms your worst fears, don’t just believe it, read the actual story and see if the headline was warranted or just incendiary and attention-grabbing.