Monday, November 06, 2006

Cornelia Dean and the Editorial Pseudo-Quote

I think Cornelia Dean (discussed in my last post) may have invented a unique journalistic device. I call it the Editorial Pseudo-Quote. You might also call it the Editorial Tag-Along. How do you do it? You provide a direct or indirect quote, and you follow it closely with your own personal editorial comment. A very careful reader may see what you are doing or wonder, but someone reading quickly may very well believe that the editorial opinion was that of the person being quoted, and not the reporter. Here is one example:
But Dr. Owens Fink, a professor of marketing at the University of Akron, said the curriculum standards she supported did not advocate teaching intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism. Rather, she said, they urge students to subject evolution to critical analysis, something she said scientists should endorse. She said the idea that there was a scientific consensus on evolution was “laughable.”

Note how Dean brilliantly sandwiches her editorial comment between two indirect quotes of Dr. Owens Fink. Who believes that intelligent design is the ideological cousin of creationism? Maybe Owens Fink, and maybe not.

Here is another:
"We were invited to debate one supposed theory against another," Dr. Leshner said, when in fact there was no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution.

Who believes that there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution? Maybe Dr. Leshner, maybe not.

The beauty of the device is threefold: 1. You get to add your own editorial comment in the article without it appearing blatant that you are departing from your proper role as a neutral reporter, 2. you add implied weight to your personal opinion by suggesting that the belief is held by the person you just quoted, and 3. you maintain plausible deniability, because what is false or misleading is merely suggested by the device, and not blatant.

Is Cornelia Dean doing this intentionally? I do not know. Is there anything false in these excerpts from her writing? I will answer this way: I think that there is one way of reading them in which they are technically true. However, my personal opinion is that they are misleading. Cleverly misleading.

Let me know if you find other examples.

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By the way, don't miss John West's post, "Inside the Mind of the New York Times: My Exchange with Cornelia Dean, Evolution Partisan."

I have posted several times about Cornelia Dean's reporting. If you only read one other, check out Contemplating Cornelia’s Creed. Here is an excerpt:
Note what must be true for this to be true. For there to be "no credible scientific challenge" to evolutionary theory, all the scientists and others who think macroevolution is not well supported by the facts are not just wrong, they have no credible basis at all for their claims. So according to Ms. Dean, hundreds of scientists at numerous universities, and hundreds or thousands more non-scientific academics doubt macroevolutionary theory on the basis of no credible evidence. The nature and sufficiency of the evidence for and against macroevolution is, of course, one of the "big issues" in the current debates, and for her to pontificate in this way basically tells the reader, "In case you are too stupid to realize, one side of the conflict about which I am reporting is right and the other is wrong. Got that? And, by the way, you can ignore half the people I am quoting.”


At November 06, 2006 10:49 PM, Blogger Larry Fafarman said...

There is nothing subtle at all about Cornelia Dean's bias. Here is another quote from the same article where she called intelligent design "an ideological cousin of creationism":

Although researchers may argue about its details, the theory of evolution is the foundation for modern biology, and there is no credible scientific challenge to it as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth.

At November 08, 2006 5:08 AM, Blogger Paul (probably - maybe Liz) said...

"No credible scientific challenge" .... you know, I'm sure I've heard that somewhere before ....


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