Making sense of Al Jazeera’s strange coverage of “Ardi”
by Salman Hameed
About two weeks ago, Science included a series of papers about our 4.4 million year old ancestor Ardipithicus or “Ardi”. It is a fascinating find that has justifiably garnered attention worldwide. You can read the details in Science (there is also a nice short video there) and an excellent description on The Loom.
However, Al Jazeera gave an interesting spin to the same story. Lina Malkawi translates the story on her blog and points out the bizarre coverage by the Arabic version of Al Jazeera, where the headline reads: Ardi refutes Darwin’s theory. And one goes, huh?! Did Al Jazeera read any thing about Ardi? Hey - if not the original Science article, at least they could have read the summary of the findings (or if that is too much to ask, watch the short video on the same website that explains the findings).
So what is the motivation behind Al Jazeera’s story and how did they reach this creative conclusion?
First of all, this story only appeared in the Arabic language Al Jazeera. I checked Al Jazeera-English and it is not mentioned at all (by the way, there is no science section at all!). This may be due to different demographics for English and Arabic language editions. Al Jazeera-English is most likely intended for relatively educated audiences (many living in the West) who have access to other competing news sources. In fact, Al Jazeera-English wants to present itself as a credible news source at par with BBC, CNN etc., but presenting news from an Arab perspective. In addition, a number of staff members of Al Jazeera-English have come from the BBC. Since they are still trying to establish their credibility in English-language press, nutty stories like this would do far more harm than good.
The Arabic language version is a different story. Al Jazeera is the biggest and most influential news channel in the Middle East. Gauging the mood of its audience, Al Jazeera can afford to run a sensational news story about evolution. This is a crowd-pleaser. Instead of seriously engaging with the implications of biological evolution - something that Muslims will have to do eventually - this kind of a distorted news story provides a short-cut to comfort. Of course, the discovery of “Ardi” itself is not a worthy story for Al Jazeera - after all they omitted its coverage in its English version - but if someone (anyone!) can claim that it is a refutation of Darwin’s theory, then it becomes a story.
How did Al Jazeera reach the conclusion that “Ardi refutes Darwin’s theory”? Most likely this is coming from that standard misconception that humans have evolved from chimpanzees rather than humans and chimpanzees having a common ancestor. And in Zaghloul el-Naggar they found a perfect mouthpiece for this nonsense. He has been searching for scientific miracles in the Qur’an.
Aaayayayay! So we have a choice: No science coverage in Al Jazeera-English or utter-rubbish in Al Jazeera-Arabic. I guess in the case of Al-Jazeera, no (science) news is good news.
Salman Hameed is an assistant professor of Integrated Science and Humanities at Hampshire College. He also runs the science-and-religion blog Irtiqa at http://sciencereligionnews.blogspot.com/