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Flunking Journalism Ethics 101: NYT Allows News Reporter to Write Op-Ed on Evolution Controversy

You'd think that after the Jayson Blair scandal, the New York Times would be exceptionally careful about questions of journalistic ethics. Why, then, is the Times allowing a reporter who regularly covers the evolution controversy on its news pages to ALSO write opinion articles on the same subject?

Cornelia Dean has written a number of news stories for the Times about the the controversy over evolution, including one about the Kansas science standards and another one last weekend about the Catholic church and evolution.

But the day after Dean's news piece appeared about Catholics and evolution, a commentary by her promoting evolution appeared on the op-ed page of the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania! In this op-ed, Dean advised evolutionists about how they can win the public debate over evolution:

Usually, when confronting the opponents of evolution, biologists make the case that evolution should be taught because it is true...

The battling biologists are right. But someone uneducated in the scientific method who listens to the arguments over evolution could be forgiven for thinking that they boil down to “my theory is better than your theory,” with both sides preaching with theological fervor.

Scientists don’t talk often enough or loud enough about the real strength of evolution — not that it is correct, but that it meets the definition of science.

Dean went on to describe how evolutionists can strengthen their public argument for evolution by talking about the scientific method. Ms. Dean wrote as if she was a public relations consultant for the Darwinists, telling them how best to frame their arguments in order to convince the public.

Dean ended her op-ed by claiming that intelligent design's belief that an "intelligent agent" was involved in the development of life is "a matter of faith, not science." Hmm. Isn't that what the whole debate is about? Critics of intelligent design claim the idea must be religious, while proponents argue that the design inference in nature is a scientific inference based on empirical evidence. While Ms. Dean is certainly entitled to her own view about which side is correct, publicly taking sides with one side of the debate in an op-ed at the same time she is covering the debate on the news pages is rather unseemly.

It turns out that Dean's op-ed in the York Daily Record originally ran in the Times itself billed as an "essay." So Dean's editors at the Times had to have known about this piece of editorializing by their reporter.

Doesn't anyone at the Times recognize that there is a problem here? On any other issue, one would think that the ethical questions raised would be obvious even to the most oblivious editor.

For example, what if a Times reporter covering the Kerry campaign last year had written an op-ed offering the Kerry campaign advice on how to win the presidential election?

Or what if a Times reporter covering judicial confirmations penned an op-ed expressing solidarity with Senate Democrats and offering them advice on how to stop conservative judicial nominations?

Ms. Dean may well be a conscientious reporter. On the one occasion she interviewed me for a story, she quoted me fairly and accurately. Given the garbled accounts of my comments published by many other reporters, Ms. Dean's accuracy wins high-marks in my book, even though the overall story she wrote was pretty one-sided. However, no matter how good a reporter Ms. Dean may be, her blurring of news and editorial functions poses a problem for an old-guard media outlet like the Times.

If the Times happened to be an opinion journal, the blurring would be fine. Indeed, I think opinion journalism--of the type found today on blogsites and in magazines like The Weekly Standard and The New Republic --is far more helpful to the public debate than straight "news stories." But the Times still purports to separate opinion and news functions, and it it still claims to offer fair and impartial coverage of the news by reporters who are not promoting their own ideological agendas. So long as the Times continues to claim that this is what it is doing, its news reporters shouldn't be writing op-eds about the stories they are covering.

Someone at the Times might want to re-read the Code of Ethics adopted by the Society of Professional Journalists:

Journalists should:

Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

I will be sending a letter of concern about this issue to the New York Times "Public Editor," Byron Calame. I will keep you posted about any response I receive.