Fake news, media framing, and the case of Pope Francis’ ‘shocking’ comments on evolution

By James Riley

If you can believe what you read, “FAKE NEWS” is everywhere these days. Shot onto the media scene like a lexical gag, the phrase was fired from the mouth of President Donald J. Trump as he confronted CNN reporter Jim Acosta during the then president-elect’s first press conference. Although the words are much older, Trump has certainly made the capitalisation his own. “FAKE NEWS!” The phrase itself comes stinking of Orwell’s ink, and when levelled it splits the media between those who goodthink and crimethink—between those who carry the party line, and those who don’t. However, this post isn’t concerned with presidential duckspeak, but rather the shape of the messages themselves—fake or not—which we receive via the media.

One high-profile example of the fake news phenomenon concerns the man at the centre of my studies here at Newman University, the 266th head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. Back in 2016, the Pope endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy. The news reverberated through social media, receiving over 900,000 engagements. The only problem being it wasn’t true. The claim has now been thoroughly debunked, with The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s factcheck.org identifying it as originally having come from the satirical news website WTOE 5 news.

As the focus of my PhD is the representation of popes in the media, albeit on their public comments about evolution, a high-profile case such as this immediately caught my attention. Daydreaming, I began to re-imagine my topic of interest. If we’d have been blessed with Trump’s addition to the lexicon earlier, would some commentators have rushed to label the coverage of Pope Francis’ 2014 statements on evolution “fake news”?

The comments in question came from an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, where Pope Francis warned: “When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining God as a magician, with a wand able to make everything. But it is not so,” following that “[t]he evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.” These words drove journalists around the world to report on the biggest apparent U-turn in Catholic-science relations since Galileo wasn’t sent to jail. But a U-turn it was not.

Time magazine’s Elizabeth Dias was outraged with the media coverage, remarking how: “site after site after site ramped up the Pope’s words and took them out of context”. MSNBC, for example, explained how Francis: “made a significant rhetorical break with Catholic tradition Monday by declaring that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are real.” According to Dias, these types of articles simply ignored several decades of previous popes’ comments on evolution, which all align with Francis’ new comments.

Dias wasn’t alone in her indignation. Patrick Cusworth of the Catholic Herald observed: “While it is refreshing to see the Pope’s pronouncements upon matters scientific reaching and being welcomed by individuals not generally well disposed toward the Church, the implicit suggestion that Pope Francis has somehow brought about a radical change in the Vatican worldview is a misleading one.”

The likes of Dias and Cusworth were right to call out some journalists on their lack of research, the lack of context in their articles, and the sensational headlines their stories carried. Almost 20 years earlier, Pope John Paul II had said something very similar. Affirming his belief in the truth of evolution, John Paul had unequivocally stated: “evolution is more than a hypothesis”. With this added context, Francis’ 2014 statements don’t seem that shocking. Furthermore, John Paul’s words were themselves an update of the position taken by Pius XII, who in 1950 explained that the Church does not ban research into evolution, although he did fail to go as far as his successors in his open acceptance of the scientific theory.

Arguably, it is the difference between the 1950 Humani generis statements of Pope Pius XII and the 1996 address by Pope John Paul II, which marks the notable change in papal comments on evolution. Renowned evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould reacted to this apparent shift in the papal position in his 1997 essay Nonoverlapping Magesteria (NOMA). The main thrust of the essay deals with Gould’s proposition that science and religion don’t overlap: science deals with the empirical world, and religion with the moral. Needless to say, many people disagree with Gould’s assessment of science-religion relations, and within this disagreeing group there are those who think science and religion can be compatible when overlapping, and those who think they are radically irreconcilable.  

Aside from setting out his idealised vision of the domains of science and religion, Gould also reflected on the press coverage of John Paul II’s 1996 comments on evolution. “I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and Catholic faith,” he remarked, surprised at the explosion of coverage. “Why had the pope issued such a statement at all? And why had the press responded with an orgy of worldwide, front-page coverage?” However, after looking back at Pius’s 1950 comments in Humani generis, Gould admitted he’d been mistaken in thinking the Catholic Church (well the popes at least) had always publicly accepted evolution. Gould casually summarises his perceptions of the change in papal commentary on evolution:

“In other words, official Catholic opinion on evolution has moved from ‘say it ain’t so, but we can deal with it if we have to’ (Pius’s grudging view of 1950) to John Paul’s entirely welcoming ‘it has been proven true; we always celebrate nature’s factuality, and we look forward to interesting discussions of theological implications.”

Therefore, after reading, in full, the comments of Pius XII (1950) and John Paul II (1996), Gould concludes: “I finally understand why the recent statement seems so new, revealing, and worthy of all those headlines.”

Now if we return to the coverage of Francis’ comments in 2014, the media coverage isn’t as easily explainable as Gould claimed the 1996 coverage was. And this brings us back to my original point, we obviously aren’t dealing with fake news here; Francis did say he believed in evolution, and the media reported this. Instead, the problems with the media coverage in 2014 come from the context in which the stories were placed. In other words, how coverage was framed. In my opinion, it is the often less apparent framing of media messages which is more interesting than the recent preoccupation with ‘fake news’.

Media framing is the selection of, or focus on, certain features of a story which make them more salient or prominent than others, just as when we take a photograph of a large expanse of countryside, the photograph frames a certain section of it, restricting and focusing our view and limiting what we see. The most well-known definition of framing in a media studies context comes from communications scholar Robert Entman (1993):

Framing essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.

When we tell a story, in any piece of communication, there is obviously far more that we could say than we do say. This may be due to genuine and valid constraints; the space restrictions of the medium, a wider editorial stance, the communicator’s own biases, or a number of other influencing factors. Therefore, some aspects of the message are selected and made more prominent than others.

If we begin to consider the pope’s pronouncements on evolution in light of the theoretical literature on media framing, we begin to understand how and perhaps why the media coverage of these repeated statements has seemingly been so obsessed with emphasising a perceived historical conflict between evolutionary theory and the Church. So, commentators like Dias were right to call out the potential problems with some of the press reporting of Pope Francis’ 2014 statements on evolution. Yet do we know how much of the media reporting used contentious framing? Or even what specific frames they were using when covering the story? Perhaps surprisingly given current misgivings with the mainstream media, there is very little research into the media framing of stories on science and religion. My PhD research hopes to begin to address this gap in the literature, by analysing the framing of media coverage of popes’ statements on evolution since 1996, and by extension coverage of science and religion.

While it is clear there is a real need to be able to identify and call-out ‘fake news’, our conversations about the media have got to progress beyond this current focus. The rise of fake news, and the alternative fact, has led many to look to Orwell for guidance in understanding current media and political discourse, but perhaps we’ve been rereading the wrong dystopian novel? In a recent article, the son of cultural critic and educator Neil Postman offered a reflection on the current media landscape, and his father’s prescient warnings of our direction of travel. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman warns it isn’t Orwell’s vision of 1984 which we should have been keeping an eye out for, but Huxley’s Brave New World. He wrote:

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Andrew Postman, the son of Neil, suggests some useful tactics in the age of the alternative fact, of fake news, and the exponential increase of information. First, seek information as close to the source as possible. From the above example, this is what Gould did when confronted with news coverage he found unsettling. He investigated the sources, and concluded on the validity of coverage. Secondly, Postman explains, don’t expect the media to do this for you. While some do it brilliantly, others do not. Postman urges the reader to remember that the media exists to sell you things. How each media outlet presents, or frames, the news they cover is carefully selected to align with the expected social norms of their target audience.

The lessons learnt from framing can help us make sense of the messages we receive in the media. Even if you can identify fake news, if you can spot an ‘alternative fact’ amongst the genuine, what questions do you ask yourself about the framing of the information you digest daily? The way a ‘fact’ is presented, or framed, can be as important as its validity.

James Riley is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Birmingham.

His PhD thesis explored Catholicism and evolution in England through investigating newspaper representations of papal statements on evolution and Catholic individuals’ perceptions of evolution using interviews. Interested in the interrelationship between science and society, he has a background in science communication and the public understanding of science, both research and practice. For more see his Research Profile.

Twitter: @JamesIRiley


Entman, R.M. (1993). “Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm”. Journal of Communication. 43 (4): 51–58.