EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER KNOWN ABOUT EVOLUTION IS WRONG (+ an analysis of journalism styles on the matter)

A potentially groundbreaking study was released Thursday regarding the findings of an archaeological site in (the Republic of) Georgia. An 8 year study conducted on the site yielded a rich collection of well-preserved artifacts, but the most noteworthy pieces found are five early human skulls. Finding this many skulls, in such good condition (four out of five are complete with jaws) all on a single site is unprecedented. The findings, described by researchers as “the richest and most complete collection of indisputable early Homo remains from any one site” provide insights which could lead to a massive restructure of the theorized lineage of human evolution.

Depending on which news article on the story you read, your understanding of the study’s implications could vary pretty widely. Perhaps this is the case with regard to the bulk of the average person’s knowledge of evolution. I have a hard time imagining the average blue collar laborer from Podunk, USA scanning through paleoanthropological journal articles in his spare time, so that must mean he gets his information elsewhere. Ideally speaking, the general American population keeps up on current issues and scientific developments through the news to stay informed.

However, taking this story for example, the content of different coverages of stories can have a severe impact on how their audience interprets it. I encourage you to read both articles (they’re brief), starting with the Fox News story (http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/10/17/18-million-year-old-skull-shakes-humanitys-family-tree/) and then Al-Jazeera’s (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/10/skull-fossil-challenges-evolution-theory-20131017202521209432.html). Are you finished reading them? Good, continue here. Not gonna read them? That’s fine, just wing it from here.

The two articles have titles which indicate that they’re covering the same story, and they do – but there’s some disparity in what’s covered in each article, as well as the manner in which the content is presented. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable difference between them is their different writing styles. The Fox News article comes off as very informal, as if it were more-or-less a person’s natural dialogue. Even the title is a pun, as opposed to Al Jazeera’s strictly topical title. It’s full of unpolished wording and offhanded interjections in the style of a person who remembers a detail mid-sentence and tacks it on, throwing conjunctions and proper structure to the wind.

“They were family — our ancient family, that is”

“It’s known at present only as “Skull 5” — it hasn’t received a clever name yet like Lucy”

“Skull 5 is different, different even than the four other skulls”

Conversely, the Al Jazeera article is rigidly structured with deliberate syntax and organization. The paragraphs are short, but they do not mince words and they each provide a piece of information which, for the most part, fits into the logical progression of the article. The Al Jazeera article is also more narrowly focused on the central topic of the story, minimizing non-essential details. The Fox News article frolics casually from topic to topic, touching upon the geography and climate of the site, the tools and artifacts discovered and the other species which inhabited the site.

Fox News’ style provides a broader subject matter to keep the reader’s interest, but fails to delve very far into the main topic. “What is the main point?” you may have asked after reading the first article – and it’s a valid question, I would agree. It can be surmised that the findings will have a narrowing effect on man-kind’s family tree. They mentioned that. But what is that effect and how is it deduced from the researchers’ findings? Those are questions that I don’t believe were clearly addressed in the Fox News article.

However, the Al Jazeera article begins to answer those questions in the very first paragraph. It proceeds to lay out, very clearly, what the implications of these findings are. Shall I reemphasize in even more brevity?

Wide variances were found to exist in 5 individuals of a single population – this means prior specimens classified as different species may all, in fact, be of the same species. A variety of early humanoid remains have been discovered previously, but most of them have been in different locations, so many of them were not considered to be of the same species. These five skulls exhibit a similar amount of variance as that between different early homo species, but they are speculatively classified as all the same species because they were found on the same site. “So does that mean all those separate branches of the existing human family tree aren’t really separate?!” Yes.*

(*maybe… to an extent).

To expand upon that, reference the text under the heading “Evolutionary biology” in the Al Jazeera article. Essentially, it provides the fine print in the form of conflicting opinions from two expert researchers in the field. A paleoanthropologist from University of Michigan agreed with the theory presented by the study; it’s very possible that early homo species have been misclassified. Conversely, a paleobiologist from our own George Washington University contends that these findings are more likely a new, unique species. No majority consensus has yet been reached.

The Al Jazeera article informs readers of the basis as well as the possible implications of the findings, whereas the Fox News article only lays out the facts as they appear, without providing any analysis or further explanation. Each article presents information of merit, but the way readers interpret and understand that information may be very different.

What impact do you think the source of an article has on its reader? To what extent is the public’s understanding of evolution a result of where they choose to get their news? Do different news styles benefit readers by appealing to different tastes or do they breed misunderstanding?

This is a story relating to evolution, is it not? Let’s check that Fox News article to find out. How many mentions of the word “evolution” are there? Compare that with the Al Jazeera article and tell me what you think.

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5 Responses to EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER KNOWN ABOUT EVOLUTION IS WRONG (+ an analysis of journalism styles on the matter)

  1. roberly2 says:

    http://www.aljazeera.com/aboutus/2006/11/2008525185555444449.html

    This is a link to the “About Us” page of the AlJazeera Media Network; it outlines the creation of the network and its growth into a corporation dedicated to a set of journalistic standards that are morally strong and well- balanced.

    It also states that the “Network headquarters are in Doha, Qatar.”

    What’s interesting about the comparison of both articles about this new discovery in human biology is that each source is working with its own stereotype, and one does a better job than the other one overcoming the stigma attached to the network. Fox news is typically associated with right- wing religious traditionalists and any news network based in Qatar is going to be associated with Islamic ideals.

    What Jhond0pe points out, which I agree with, is that Aljazeera writes a clinical analysis of the facts about the skulls found in Georgia, embellishing little and ensuring all information is presented in a useable manner, whereas the Fox News article write something more like an editorial of the discovery, not quite mocking but certainly livelier than it Middle Eastern counterpart.

    The Aljazeera article does a much better job presenting the facts about the discovery and does not insinuate at all that the skulls might be some work of God or Heavenly intervention (which one wouldn’t necessarily expect but would have been less surprising to me than this science- heavy report). Fox News, on the other hand, kept the tone of their piece light and almost cute, like the discovery was not as monumental as it was, and I left feeling somewhat insulted and definitely on the defensive.

    It’s surprising to me that the Aljazeera article could be less biased than the one from Fox News, but I suppose it shouldn’t be; all over the world people are accepting evolution, are working it into their personal beliefs and religions, and yet at home the US rate of belief in evolution is among the lowest in the world. What does that say about us?

  2. sm1414 says:

    I think this post shows how news agencies really pander to their intended audiences to ensure ratings remain high. Like roberly2 says, the typical Fox News viewer is a right-wing ideologue who more likely than not has strong religious beliefs. Therefore, it is more likely that a story from this source would try to emphasize the description of the sight and what was found while leaving out any aspects of scientific research related to evolution. It is simply ensuring that its rhetoric reaches its intended audience and ensuring that it satisfies its actual audience.
    On the other hand, Al Jazeera is typically considered a more respected news source (at least by some of my professors here at GW) and is trying to capture the attention of a different audience. Al Jazeera’s audience tends to be more academic and more interested in fact driven analysis. Even though it is headquartered in the Middle-East and there are many people in that region who are hard core fundamentalists, Al Jazeera is trying to reach a global audience which it cannot do by simply pandering to Islamic Fundamentalists. On the other hand, Fox News tends to push a political agenda meant to promote far right ideas. While Al Jazeera has covered some religious fundamentalist stories (for example, playing web tapes sent in by Osama Bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda), the network is not meant to be the network of Islamic fundamentalists. Since both agencies have different audiences, they are more likely to cover this type of story or any story related to evolution differently than each other or another competitor.
    To further illustrate this point, I have attached an article from the New York Times about the same story. Considering that the New York Times is a very respected news source with a slightly left tilt, I was curious to see how it covered the story. While not using the world evolution directly in the article all that often, it is clear that the find is a major milestone relating to human evolution. The Times covered the story with an emphasis on facts and cited quotes from the researchers involved and other experts. In this sense, the article was more scholarly and had more ethos associated with it since many different scientists were consulted on the article. How do you think this article differs from the other two articles?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/18/science/fossil-skull-may-rewrite-humans-evolutionary-story.html?_r=0

  3. johnd0pe says:

    It is interesting to note that Al Jazeera seems to maintain its neutrality, generally without even a hint of Islamic bias. To a scholarly demographic, Al Jazeera is known and respected as a global news source, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that many average Americans are turned off of it simply because of its name. For example, I highly doubt there is very much overlap between the audiences of Al Jazeera and of Fox news.

    As far as the New York Times goes, I’ve always found that its style is perhaps the most objective of news outlets. They may reflect more liberal attitudes from time to time, but they almost never promote any one point of view; it could correlate to the subject matter of their articles or the influence of representing a major metropolitan area. They avoid even using provocative or sensationalist language to promote their journalistic integrity, ensuring they don’t make a story like this out to be analogous to the latest happenings on a daytime drama. Just look at this article; do the findings “challenge” or “shake” anything? or do they simply “suggest” something? It depends which article you read.

  4. mykkros says:

    While roberly does point out that AlJazeera is based in Doha, Qatar, a country that it known to be far more conservative than even other middle eastern countries, I still doubt that affect the validity of the news source. Considering AlJazeera is one of the largest news companies in the world, most of the readership does not come from local area but rather from a large, generally well educated, international population. Similar to how one can easily see the difference between a Wall Street Journal article and a Fox News article, it most likely depends on the type of people that generally read such news that affects the way it is written.

    Sm414 points out a good point when he or she shows the New York Times article about a similar topic. While there is a slight difference in the style of the New York Times article to that of the Fox article, it is still quite different from the AlJazeera article. Could it be, perhaps, more of a cultural difference that simply a political difference? From my personal experience when I have traveled abroad, foreign news reporters generally seem far more serious and seem to try to avoid emotion when they discuss the daily news. On the other hand, morning news in the US is almost a form of entertainment with various morning shows such as CBS and MSNBC inviting famous singers to sing in between commercial breaks. Something of the sort in another country would be completely unheard of.

    Regarding the topic in which the articles all discuss, I still feel that this is still a long way from proving any fact about evolution. Just because researchers came across a single piece of evidence that may be against evolution does not mean that evolution will be debunked any time soon. For example, if scientists discovered a person that would float in midair for a few seconds, they would not immediately disprove the theory of gravity. Instead, they would do further experimentation and try to understand what is going on via the scientific method before making any altercations to previously held scientific theories.

  5. After reading both of these articles and comparing them, it is apparent that the differing writing styles slightly effects how the article is perceived, as was originally claimed. Fox News has a reputation of having conservative tendencies and are not a reputable source for scientific information. These notions lead to how one perceives the article. The Fox News article is non technical and seems to dumb down the information, which in turn presents the information informally and in a feature-esque article. The Al Jazeera one has a noticeable difference in the tone of the article. The language is more technical and more details are shared. The more substantial language gives a more intelligent tone. These are the examples that I notice in the articles that do have an effect on the way the information is perceived. However, to make the claim that johnd0pe made that everything we thought we knew is a lie is not just proved by the articles and their tones. These articles are from reputable but mainstream media outlets that cover all news. These articles are interesting to many people however it is not a scholarly source for the information included. The study and its findings will be published by the researchers. This is the information source that is most acceptable to make points and views on.

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