Friday, June 24, 2011

Beauty queens, evolution, and bad journalism

Okay, so every single blog I read (I exaggerate, it's only been half) has decided to go back to three weeks ago and revive a story about the fact that the Miss USA pageant asked contestants about teaching evolution in schools.

Sources as high up as Scientific American have been saying that the winner, Miss California, was either "the only" or "one of the few" contestants who supported evolution. Jezebel posted a mash-up video of the interviews that presented basically Miss California's answer and then tried to make the other 50 contestants look like they didn't understand the question.

I don't actually care about this from an issue of what I believe or what should or shouldn't be taught in schools.

My problem is that the reporting on this story from nearly every single source has represented a massive failure in journalism and ethics. Jezebel specifically took quotes out of context in order to make these women look foolish, and in at least one case showed someone who clearly said that she supported teaching evolution in schools and took that statement away to make her look indecisive and inconclusive.

I decided to try to accurately categorize the answers of each contest, pull quotes that I felt properly represented their beliefs and their answers to the question, and then see how many women supported evolution, how many supported teaching evolution alongside "other theories" and how many outright rejected the teaching of evolution in schools.

An important note before we start: Obviously, my interest in this subject comes from the fact that I know one of the contestants and attended the pageant in order to film and interview her for my latest movie.

I will not be presenting my opinion on the question itself, because this is about journalism, not my opinion. Though I will admit that my bias probably is peeking through. But I'm trying not to judge the women's answers as right or wrong, but simply present what I believe their opinion is.

Answers will be categorized as follows:

Yes: An unequivacable yes with no qualifiers or other options presented.

No: An outright no.

Yes*: This contestant acknowledges the religious side of the debate but does NOT specifically state that religious perspectives or other ideas should be presented in a school setting. It is my opinion that acknowledging that students will hear the religious teachings in their life is not the same as advocating for religion to be taught alongside evolution in the school system, hence the different rating.

Yes (choice): Answered that it should be taught along with other options to let students choose their own beliefs.

Kinda: They use mitigating terms like "mention" or "addressed," implying it should not be a full discussion on the topic if it is taught.

Maybe: Does not present a solid yes or no, or at least I couldn't decide what they meant.

Contestants answers, alphabetical by state:

Alabama- No. "I do not believe in Evolution, I do not think it should be taught in schools and I would not encourage it".

Alaska- Kinda. "It is part of our history and the belief system that the West has held...However personally I don't believe in Evolution. I believe that each one of us were created for a purpose by God and that just gives my life so much more direction and meaning." (her answer was hard for me to categorize, because she does state that yes it should be taught, but then states her personal belief that it is untrue).

Arizona- Yes (choice). "I think it's good to give our students both sides of the story and let them choose for themselves."

Arkansas- Maybe. "Personally, I never was taught evolution." "Every school is different so if that's something that they think that they need to teach their children, then to each his own."

California- Does not actually answer the question (you could argued there's an implied yes). "I was taught evolution in my high school growing up. I do believe in it, I'm a huge science geek, so I like to believe in like, The Big Bang Theory and you know the evolution of humans, you know, throughout, you know, time..."

Colorado-Yes (choice). "I think that we should definitely open up to offering different ways to teach students about everything...It's important to let students just decide their own ideas on what they want to believe in." "I think they should teach evolution and just other concepts as well."

Connecticut-Yes. "I do think evolution should be taught in schools." (that is, for the record, her ENTIRE answer).

Delaware- Kinda. "I think evolution should be taught in schools but in particular high school...everyone needs to learn these experiences on their own and not just based off of parent's beliefs." States that students can "opt" take it.

District of Columbia- Yes. "I think it's important to see a difference in perspectives to actually be able to formulate your own opinion."

Florida- Yes. "It's something that people do believe in...we really don't know where the first level, the first person came from."

Georgia- Yes (choice). "I think kids need to be taught a wide variety of things, not just be taught one or the other...I think evolution should be taught but maybe the Biblical stuff should be taught as well." "We're smarter than ever these days, so why not teach everything and let people make their own decisions."

Hawaii- Yes (choice). "We have creationa...tism and a lot of other opinions and ideas that are taught to the children. I think everybody should be able to have their opinion taught." She also stresses that families should be there to help guide children to their beliefs "as a family and as individuals."

Idaho- Kinda. "I believe that evolution should be mentioned in school. The thing is it's all about what you believe in, it shouldn't be pushed on you but you should be knowledged(?) about it."

Illinois- Yes. "It is information that should be available to students, it is a theory that people should know about."

Indiana- Maybe. "I don't know. I think we should maybe, we should leave that up to the government."

Iowa- Yes (choice). "I believe that everyone should have equal opportunity in education. If it is available it could be available as an elective, I think." (note: she does mention having taken a class in evolution in college that helped her with her own perspective on the issue).

Kansas- Kinda. "I think evolution should be at least introduced or exposed to students. But I think it's up to the student to either take it in and decide if they want to apply it to their life or not."

Kentucky- No. "I honestly don't think you can ever have too much knowledge on any subject." "But, I don't think evolution should be taught in schools just because there's so many different, different views on do you teach a child the true meaning of evolution when so many different cultures have their different beliefs."

Louisiana- Yes. Note: Louisiana has been getting a lot of grief because she calls it a "tough one" and hems and haws a bit on her answer. But she says yes TWICE, and does not qualify her answer at all. The Jezebel video starts in the middle, taking out her first yes, including her considering the question, and then cuts out again before she reaffirms her statement.

Maine- Yes (choice). "I feel that we should have evolution taught in schools, as well as a belief in faith."

Maryland- Yes (choice). "I think that everything should be taught in school. I think the great thing about America is that we're open to freedom of choice, freedom of religion..." "Evolution is a great theory, it is something that has really helped us evolve as people, to use the word."

Massachusetts- Yes*. "I was personally taught evolution growing up, even in a religious school...I think it's good because it broadens your horizons. I think any learning possibility is good." "I think the more learning you can get, the more educated you are and the more educated you are, the better you come off."

Michigan- Yes*. "I think it's silly to not know both sides and it would be ignorant if it's not."

Minnesota- Yes*. "Yes, it should be. I grew up Catholic, so that's a great question...but I think it's important to understand all perspectives before making up your own decision. And I did learn from my priest growing up that evolution does not go against the Catholic faith and Pope John Paul II did accept the idea of evolution."

Mississippi-Kinda. "I think evolution should be taught as what it is, it's a theory, so I don't think it should be taught as fact."

Missouri- Maybe. "I think if it were to be taught in schools, that would give kids a chance to decide what they want to believe for themselves."

Montana- Yes (choice). "I think that it should definitely be presented as an option. And I think that both sides should be presented."

Nebraska- Yes (choice). "I think in public schools you have to give all credited theories equal amount of time, I think creation and evolution should both be able to be taught."

Nevada- Kinda. "I think there's different ways to view evolution. As everybody can probably agree upon, everything evolves. We evolve as communities that build ourselves from scratch, Nevada is a good example of that." "It does't necessarily have to be about people and how people evolved but it can also be about communities as well."

New Hampshire- Yes (choice). "You know, I work in a hospital setting with children and families and I am constantly trying to provide interactions and interventions as a child life specialist that is culturally respective and sensitive to all points of view. So I think that evolution is one of those things that needs to be incorporated but it shouldn't be the only point of view taught."

New Jersey- Yes (choice). "I think everything should be taught in schools. Every single aspect of evolution and anything you can think of."

New Mexico- Yes. "I think evolution should be taught in schools because evolution is based off of science and I think science is a huge thing that we need to continue to enrich our schools with."

New York- Yes (choice). "I personally believe that evolution should be taught in schools and religion should be taught in schools." "Knowledge is power and it's good for all of our students to have a wider perspective of different beliefs."

North Carolina- Yes (choice). "I think it's great to get both sides of the story." "You can't push opinions or beliefs on children so they need to know every side that's out there." "Yes, I do believe it should be taught, but so should the other side of the story."

North Dakota- Yes*. "Sure, why not?" "I think it's good that people get both sides of the story, so to speak."

Ohio- Yes*. "The youth right now in America, why not keep their options open? You don't necessarily have to agree with it, but I'm not opposed to it."

Oklahoma- Yes (choice). "I think it's important to teach young people kind of every version of everything. A little bit of everything so they can form their own opinions."

Oregon- Yes (choice). "I think that every theory of how we came to be here should get a shout out in the education. So evolution definitely should be presented but I think other options should be presented alongside it, it shouldn't be the only one."

Pennsylvania- Yes (choice). "I think we should explore all philosophies and other theories should be taught as well."

Rhode Island- Yes*. "I think that kids need to know all different perspectives on how the world came to be."

South Carolina- Kinda. "Whether people believe in creation or evolution, everyone needs to know how we were made, why we're here. And I think if the parents are fine with it, then that's okay."

South Dakota- Yes*. "I think evolution is part of basic science and it should be taught. But I also don't think that teachers or anyone should step on the toes of biblical values either."

Tennessee- Yes (choice). "Personally that's not my belief, but I think all ideas should be put out there for people to decide for themselves."

Texas- Yes. "I don't see why evolution couldn't be taught in schools. I think it's something that again, it would be the school's preference, but I think it would be interesting to learn about and to just have something extra for kids to know about."

Utah- Kinda. "It's tough, it's one of those things that either way somebody's going to be offended, so I would say yes but you know, somebody's mad now."

Vermont- Yes. "I think evolution should be taught in schools because not everybody has the same religious background and it's important to have scientific facts about the world and we do know that evolution exists even on a small scale with people and with bacteria that are becoming resistant to drugs and what not. So, might as well learn about it."

Virginia- Kinda. "I think little bits and pieces of evolution should be taught in schools, because it is a theory, and after all we all need to know about different theories so that we can figure out what we want to believe is true."

Washington- Yes. "I think that when it comes to evolution, I think that science is great and when it comes to teaching I think that facts should be stated and we should know the facts as to how the world evolves, because it does. But as far as when it comes to little theories and what not I probably want to stay away from those. I believe in the truth and the truth only not somebody's you know, imagination or hope or what not. So I think facts not theories should be taught."

West Virginia- Yes (choice). "Yeah, I do think that evolution should be taught in schools but I also don't think that religion should be taken out. If you don't believe in evolution, that's fine, but you should at least be informed about it. And if you don't believe in religion, that's fine, but you should at least be informed about it."

Wisconsin- Kinda. "I feel that evolution should be taught in schools only because I think it's a great subject to touch base on."

Wyoming- Yes (choice). "Evolution is kind of a touchy subject." "I would think both should be taught in schools because you should probably know the whole story."

I used this video to make this list. This cut seems to be each contestant in order and the entirety of what was presented by Miss USA. Miss USA edited these answers before they were posted, and unless we ask each of these girls again or Miss USA releases unedited video, we do not actually know their full answers:

To summarize my findings by answer:
Two No: Alabama, Kentucky.

Three Maybe: Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri.

Ten Kinda: Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin.

Nineteen Yes (Choice): Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wyoming.

Seven Yes*: Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota.

Nine Yes: Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas, Vermont, Washington.

One Implied Yes: California.

In other words: seventeen were in favor, nineteen wanted to teach "other options," thirteen were on the fence or not completely in favor, and only TWO were outright opposed. That means that there isn't even a clear majority of answers in one way or another, with only a two person lead in favor of presenting other options. Those opposed to teaching evolution were in the vast minority, and it's worth noting only ONE of those was opposed because it was against her beliefs. Kentucky felt that it was too complicated a situation and that it was impossible to present every aspect of the issue.

I did not note how many contests clearly stated they did not believe in evolution, but it was again a distinct minority, which is not at all how the story has been presented in the media.

Another important note is that the contestants answers to these questions had almost no bearing on their performance in the pageant. These online interviews may have influenced the pageant officials who do have some say in choosing the semi-finalists, but to my knowledge the judges for the preliminaries did NOT see these interviews, as the interview portion of the semifinals was done on a different day. From what I can piece together, these videos were intended as a "get to know the contestants" to help facilitate the online voting portion of the program that chose the 16th semi-finalist. For the record, that was Miss Mexico, who was not given credit in ANY article I read for her defense of science.

Once the semi-finalists were chosen, all 16 start with a clean slate and a new set of judges. Only their performance during Sunday night's event was judged. So Miss California's discussion of being a huge "history geek" was taken into account, but her mentions of science were not discussed or presented (unless my memory is being faulty, and I apologize and will correct this if so). I'm okay with the fact that science blogs and nerds in general don't understand the workings of the pageant itself, but I would hope that they might at least try to find out and understand before making assumptions.

Another note before you comment: A lot of responses to this issue have been "who cares what beauty queens think?" Well, Miss Alabama specified in her interview question as a finalist that she is a "future educator." So discounting these women as beauty queens when some of them are actually educators isn't very useful.

Also, I will not tolerate blanket stereotyping of these women as stupid simply because they are pretty or they are in beauty pageants. As I've said already, I was AT the pageant this year to work on my film and I met several of these women, heard them giving interviews with different media outlets, and even learned about them from pageant officials. They are not stupid. Being pretty doesn't mean being dumb. If you want to talk about a specific statement by a specific contestant, that's fine.