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.