When producers release a documentary about a public affairs topic, especially in the case of a propaganda film like Expelled, they create several natural advantages over the typical news coverage that follows a policy debate.
First, in the lead up to the release of the film, the documentary generates coverage at softer news beats such as film reviews, the lifestyle pages, and in the case I detail below, the show business beat. In these contexts, the claims of the film are featured without context or absent a counter-argument.
Readers of these news zones are likely to be less familiar with the featured public affairs topic than regular consumers of the news or opinion pages. With no context to go on, for these audiences, positive coverage of the film is likely to be that much more influential.
Second, when the film is actually released, producers reach audiences directly with a potentially powerful message. In the case of Expelled, theater audiences are less likely to be heavy news consumers, with the film being one of the few exposures they might have to the issue of intelligent design, or even evolution!
(Targeting movie goers is based on the same principle that motivates political candidates to appear on Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live or run commercials during daytime talkshows. In these media contexts, candidates are able to reach a politically inattentive public who have yet to form strong opinions about the election.)
-->Overall, the advantage to a film campaign is the ability to deliver a preferred framing and interpretation of a policy issue to low information audiences with little or no counter-message.
A leading example of this documentary impact occurred last week at American Public Media's Marketplace (transcript and audio). The program which offers a public radio take on the economy and business, ran a lengthy feature on the marketing of Expelled. In the report, although we learn important details about the strategy of the producers in gaining news attention, building buzz, and attracting audiences, there is ZERO context provided to the central claims of the film. The episode basically serves as a free commercial for the movie. Notice in the opening to the story, how the reporter ducks the tougher assignment of actually providing context on the claims of the film:
STACEY VANEK-SMITH: How do you make a blockbuster out of a documentary about politics in academia? That was the question facing the producers of "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." The film focuses on a group of university professors who say they were fired for dissing Darwin.
WOMAN IN FILM: If you have questioned Darwininsm, that's it, your career is over.
BEN STEIN: Scientists are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator.
Thoughts like a higher being created the universe, and there's nothing natural about natural selection. Controversial, yes. But the stuff blockbusters are made of? After all, Darwin doesn't exactly have the mass appeal of Batman.
That's it. It's about as softball as you will find in a news report.
-->So what's the counter-strategy? How do you effectively combat the natural tendency of a film such as Expelled to take advantage of non-traditional media beats for coverage of a public affairs topic, in the process gaining free publicity for the film?
In the case of Expelled, while focusing on making sure science writers and education reporters have a counter-message on the film, these are not the most important reporters to target. Science and education correspondents are far more likely to be familiar with the intelligent design claims, to know sources to turn to for context, and are writing for an audience that is already far more well informed than the average soft news consumer.
So instead as a priority, you want to make sure that film reviewers, movie industry correspondents, and entertainment reporters at local, regional, and national outlets are also contacted and provided background information on the film's claims.
Just like the targeted public for Expelled, reporters at these soft news beats are unlikely to be very familiar with intelligent design, the Dover case, or even evolution. They have a story to file on deadline, with limited space, and a standard packaging for their audience. They are probably unaware that in the case of Expelled, the film merits a strong counter-balance to its central claims. In fact, probably the only information they have on the topic is the press packet and materials that have been provided to them by the Expelled producers. The easiest thing for them is to follow their routinized and standardized approach for reporting on a new film and to get on to their next assignment.
If soft news correspondents aren't contacted in advance of writing film reviews or soft features on Expelled, what you can expect are lot more of the type of stories that ran on public radio last week.
What would be the interest of such reporters in talking about the substantive issues of the film? Why is it a surprise that a business piece wouldn't talk about the content of the film, since their focus is on the business side of things? It seems that these reporters are doing much as one would expect, framing the story in terms of their audience's interests, and I very much doubt that someone who follows the entertainment business cares about the actual truth of the claims in Expelled (or in Sicko or An Inconvenient Truth), any more than they would worry about the historical accuracy of 300 or The Passion of the Christ.
Asking film reviewers and business reporters to engage in the substantive issues of Expelled seems a quixotic, unboundedly optimistic pursuit. That isn't their beat, it isn't their frame -- is this approach really likely to be effective? Or are those folks who contact these reporters more likely to be seen as humourless cranks? What is the evidence (perhaps from earlier films on contentious topics) that this approach would be worth the effort?
For more background on the "shifting news beat" problem see this cover article for the Columbia Journalism Review that I wrote with Chris Mooney.
There are obvious limitations on context at these soft news beats, but these reporters are not beyond including context, such as a quick few lines that Cornelia Dean, for example, has used in her coverage of ID. Information provided to soft news reporters should provide these types of FAQ short nuggets that can be adapted to their reporting style.
In the example below, even though Dean is a science writer, this type of context is not beyond a lifestyle reporter or movie reviewer to fit into their coverage. From a Dean article:
In theory, this position teach the controversy is one any scientist should support. But mainstream scientists say alternatives to evolution have repeatedly failed the tests of science, and the criticisms have been answered again and again. For scientists, there is no controversy.
Matt, your CJR article points to the problem, but I don't see that it offers much hope of a solution, at least at the level of individual reporters. From the CJR piece it appears to me that a more likely source of successful influence is the editors and ombudsmans, who are ultimately responsible for papers and television stations presenting accurate information. Perhaps a campaign to sensitize them to this issue would be more effective than targeting reporters directly, since unless they get an edict from the top that this issue is important to cover correctly, they may simply lapse into their standard reporting approach, regardless of uppity scientists complaints.
I'm an editor -- and I agree with Tulse. Editors are, for the most part, the ones who actually do fact-checking and decide which movies, etc., are the ones that are going to warrant more and/or in-depth analysis.
It's really important, though, that strong-arm tactics are avoided... As in, "Expelled is really insidious and needs to be countered by..."
An editor, for instance, can look at the NCSE's "Expelled Exposed" site and see that it's just as one-sided and biased as the movie's site itself -- which they're not inclined to "trust," either.
Editors are smart people, and can smell a rat faster than most folks. You just need to approach them with information and facts in a business-like manner.
Greg: "Editors are smart people, and can smell a rat faster than most folks. You just need to approach them with information and facts in a business-like manner."
Finally, there is a minor problem of logistics. How do you know which editors to apporach in advance? Or is the idea to teach editors to contact NCSE or AAAS beforehand to make sure that their stories are scientifically kosher?
You generate two targeted lists. The first is the top 25 circulation/audience size outlets for coverage of film or review of film. The second are the local and regional outlets where Expelled is advertised as running in theaters.
As per routine, when a new film opens in a market, movie reviewers review the film and soft entertainment features appear. You make sure that journalists and editors have background information on the film in advance of coverage.
It involves placing a phone call, sending an email, and putting together press materials. You can do this at a nationally coordinated level via several different organizations or you can do it at your own local level as a local Citizens for Science organization, as an example.
As a regular listener to Marketplace (gosh I miss Rudy Maxxa) I'm of the opinion this is much ado about nothing.
Without knowing the specifics, I assume the average listener to this program is educated enough to recognize the canard that the film peddles. To conclude that such persons will be influenced by such material is a stretch. Most have already made up their mind on the subject. Your assumption that listeners are unaware of the Dover is a bit of a stretch, this program is on public radio after all.
Then there's the intent of the segment. As you pointed out, it was a discussion whether Christian themed programming can be successful. It discussed the passion film as an example of unexpected success and asked the question whether this film can match that feat. It then examined how it was marketed, the nuts and bolts techniques of building interest. There was no value judgments of the content, it was a discussion of how do you create the sizzle to sell that steak. If anything it was useful in that it describes the techniques these people have employed, intend to employ, and the results.
Finally, real estate wise, this was the back lot position. Friday's shows probably have a decent following because of the discussion with David Johnson; however, in the Ess Eff bay area the second airing show is preempted in favor of local programming. (That used to be the case in SoCal too, but I see KPCC changed their programming.) Nevertheless, Friday lite is the common phrase to discuss the traffic situation both in listeners and cars. How many great television shows are on Friday? I suspect this was filler material.
Finally, scan the web page and find this segment. The only way you can is if you know the date. Not exactly high profile.
BTW - It's American Public Media, not Public Radio International.
PRI corrected. Thanks.
On other matters, the central focus of the post is not that the one time exposure at Marketplace risks swinging public opinion on the film, but rather that the Marketplace segment is representative of the types of stories and reports that are likely to appear over the next couple of weeks at softer news beats and outlets. Combined, this "shifting of news beats" for coverage can have a significant impact in terms of creating positive buzz for the film.
Finally, on the public radio audience, past survey research I have done finds that public confusion about intelligent design is widespread among audiences, even among the moderately religious, which includes a lot of public radio listeners:
See also this more recent Pew report:
That confusion is only likely compounded if soft news beats start running uncritical stories featuring the claims of Stein and Expelled.
How about we encourage Jewish biologists to go and see it, and review it for their local papers? From what we have heard about the film so far, it seems to be not only pseudo-science, but also holocaust revisionism. Jewish scientists should feel very queasy watching a film in which a fanatic group is trying to advance their particular brand of Christianity (albeit this time, without a layer of Norse mythology) by encouraging the masses to blame society's ills on a misunderstood minority.
Not so much "The Jewish Menace: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" as "The Dawrinist Menace: The Protocols of the Elders of Science".
If we just frame Expelled as a misrepresentation of Science, we may just get yawns from editors. If we frame it as anti-Semitism too, we're going to stand a better chance at getting their attention. I also think that for local papers, being contacted by a trusted local professional is more likely to get a response than a remote, faceless, organisation. I'm hoping that for national papers, the ADL will contribute, (do you have any connections there?).
We want to make people feel too ashamed to see this hate-film.
What do you think?
In fact, probably the only information they have on the topic is the press packet and materials that has been provided to them by the Expelled producers.
Ok, what should be in the press packet that they get from the scientific community?
- this film is propaganda
- there is no "evolution debate" in academia, because the evidence overwhelmingly supports it
- There is no ban on "Questioning Darwin", only on bad, religiously-motivated psudeo science
- the only country in the developed world where there is controversy is the USA
- this is because of the unusual religiosity of the USA
- the founding fathers of the USA were against religion having any part in public life (ie: it's patriotic to be unreligious)
- The Southern Baptist church did not apologise for its defence of slavery until 1995 (Only indirectly related, but always a good thing to throw in.)
More importantly, what machinery exists for getting these press packets out to the reviewers and so on? Surely someone on the boards must have a contact in the movie publicisation industry.
I sent a harshly-worded email to both Marketplace and my local public radio station (of which I'm a member) expressing my outrage about this softball (well-put, by the way) coverage of Expelled, quoting the famous "spoiler" about linking "Darwinism" to the Holocaust. I don't care if you're if you're a business program, wouldn't you provide a modicum of context if you're discussing Triumph of the Will? I'm putting a moratorium on my donations to the station.
Please don't stop giving to public radio! It's one the last great sources for public affairs news left, perhaps the best source we have.
This was one report, one journalist, filing a story on deadline. Marketplace is a great program, but mistakes are made sometimes.
Good coverage is also a two-way street. If scientists, educators, and advocates care about making sure we have quality coverage of evolution, it is also dependent on us to engage with the journalists who are most likely to be covering the Expelled story.
In this case, that means journalists at softer news beats and movie reviewers.
"In fact, probably the only information they have on the topic is the press packet and materials that has been provided to them by the Expelled producers."
First, any reporter, even a soft news reporter, who works solely from a press packet has violated the ethical standards of journalism. I've done a bit of reviewing myself from time to time (mainly political/science books, I'll admit). I wouldn't conceive of relying solely on what is presented to me. It would just be ridiculous, lazy, unethical and a violation of my standards as a journalist.
As for what you can do about journalists who would do this sort of thing, I think reaching out to publications is a good idea; however, I'd also suggest filing a complaint with the ombudsman every time you see this happen. Documentaries should be held to a much higher standard than films meant solely for entertainment. Of course, I'm of the opinion that even the usual fictional fare should be held to at least a basic standard of accuracy. My friends will tell you that watching movies with me is probably not a good idea for that very reason.
I like your list but I have a few corrections based on what I would think if I received this press packet.
"There is no ban on "Questioning Darwin", only on bad, religiously-motivated psudeo science"
I think we need to stop pretending that modern evolutionary theory is Darwinism or that questioning evolution is questioning Darwin. Darwin was woefully wrong on a lot of issues. Read The Descent of Man sometime if you haven't already. Scientists have done what scientists do: corrected the theory based on the evidence and produced a stronger, more-evidence based theory than Darwin's original. The sooner we get away from the Darwin straw man, the better.
Second, there is a ban on ALL pseudoscience of which religiously-motivated pseudoscience is just a subset. Targeting the "religion" issue rather than the pseudoscience issue is bad framing, as it were, and makes it look like you have an axe to grind over religion NOT bad science.
"this is because of the unusual religiosity of the USA"
The USA isn't as unusually religious as most people believe and especially not enough to skew the numbers for evolution as much as they are skewed. More likely, the poor state of our education system, the decreasing qualifications of our nation's teachers, the abandonment of experimental labs in schools due to low funding and the transition to rote memorization in science education have played a HUGE role in the evolution "controversy."
"the founding fathers of the USA were against religion having any part in public life (ie: it's patriotic to be unreligious)"
Some founding fathers were against religion being in the public sphere. Others were not. Let's not dumb down history in the name of science. The church/state separation was a pragmatic decision supported by the religious and unreligious alike. Connecting patriotism, therefore, with irreligiosity is ahistorical and to be honest, would have your ideas rejected by many journalists.
"The Southern Baptist church did not apologise for its defence of slavery until 1995 (Only indirectly related, but always a good thing to throw in.)"
Again, this makes it look like you're grinding your axe against religion NOT arguing based on scientific facts. Since journalists often have to quickly review dozens of sources for reliability before getting to the meat of their research, your packet would probably be thrown in the circular file for this very reason.
Was my suggestion really that bad?