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  • How to report on evolutionary science

Whether on 'biotech' or human history, your reporting needs sensitivity and clarity when it comes to evolution, says Mohammed Yahia.

Many scientists regard Charles Darwin's theory of evolution as the cornerstone of modern biology.

It says that all species, even humans, evolved by natural selection. That is, emerging traits that help organisms survive and reproduce are 'selected' and become established over generations.

Evolution underpins topics as varied as palaeontology, animal breeding and virology, and modern biotechnology. It's this wide application that makes it crucial to many different science stories.

But explaining evolution can be tricky if people know little about the theory. A British Council survey in 2009 found that 62 per cent of respondents in Egypt, and 73 per cent in South Africa, had never even heard of Charles Darwin.

Others simply reject the theory — including over half the Turkish respondents in a 2006 survey by Science. Rejection is particularly common in conservative religious societies.

So how can you report on evolutionary science — or any science based on the theory of evolution — in these communities?

Take aim

First, be clear in your aim — to explain your science story. Despite people's beliefs about creation or religion, they may be able to accept evolution in other contexts — if you explain it well!

Remember that in most developing countries, evolution is barely taught in school and what information people do receive may be from sources opposing it. In Indonesia, for example, a 2007 survey from McGill University found that more than two-thirds of teachers interviewed used anti-evolution videos in biology lessons.

So try to cover evolution's basic concepts as clearly and simply as possible, explaining terms like 'natural selection', 'common ancestry', and 'genetic traits', even if they seem obvious to you. Use images or videos if they help.

Bring the story close to home. Most communities have been directing evolution themselves for hundreds or thousands of years, by breeding plants or animals. Even the Ancient Egyptians bred plants to produce better strains.

Many communities direct evolution themselves by breeding animals

Flickr/Curt Carnemark/World Bank

I once heard a professor comparing evolution to how car shapes and models change over time, adapting to people's needs and those of the environment. Such examples can help demystify evolution.

And don't be side tracked by counter arguments. For example, creationists could argue that animal breeding does not prove evolution because it does not include evolution from one species to another — all variations in animal breeding take place within a single species.

Does the story you're telling need to prove all of evolution, or will a little bit do?

Accommodating religion

It is impossible to deny that evolution does oppose some religious beliefs. Indeed, many people's only knowledge of the theory is this conflict. But opposition isn't always absolute. For example, in the Islamic MENA region, many people accept the theory, but refuse to include humans in the evolutionary order.

Try to avoid pitting evolution directly against religion. In religious societies, it is guaranteed to alienate your audience. Instead, make sure you know your audience's potential beliefs and why they may oppose evolution.

For example, Christian communities' interpretations range from believing in evolution guided by God, to believing a literal interpretation of the Bible, in which God created man in one day just a few thousand years ago.

Where possible, try to accommodate religious beliefs into your story. You might add a paragraph or two to explain how some religious interpretations completely oppose evolution, while others do not.

For example, you might be reporting how a newly-found fossil shows birds evolved from reptiles millions of years ago. In a Christian community, you could explain that while some interpretations of the Bible say the Earth is only a few thousand years old, others agree with science that life on the planet is billions of years old.

For conservative communities, it is always best to tread lightly with issues that are related to religion. If you are unsure about the different beliefs in your community, seek help from others.

But remember you are a science reporter! Focus on the science. You may find you don't need to mention religion at all. It may just draw attention away from the science to emotionally-charged wider debates.

Terminology

Be careful in your choice of words — terms appropriate to use in one culture might not be so in another. Find out which terms will best work in your community.

For example, the 2007 McGill University survey in Indonesia found many people associated 'Darwinism' with 'terrorism' and 'fascism'.

Journalists writing about evolution sometimes inappropriately call evolution deniers "conservatives", as is often seen in coverage in the United States. But conservative can also mean someone with strong religious beliefs. The problem is the assumption that evolution is at odds with conservatives' religious stance, which is not always the case.

Using such a term may lead to outright refusal of your story because you have unintentionally phrased it as 'evolution against religion' — a mistake in religious communities.

And many people believe in the process of evolution but also in the creation story of their religion. So don't automatically label religious communities 'creationist' — a school of thought that outright rejects the theory of evolution.

Covering counter arguments

If you are reporting on something like a fossil that explains birds' evolution, you're usually better off interviewing a scientist and sticking to a strictly science story, rather than seeking a religious comment.

If you are reporting on a fossil, stick to a strictly science story

Flickr/qmechanic

If you do decide to quote or interview religious leaders, for a story about the conflict between evolution and creationism, for example, find at least one person who is not completely against evolution. Otherwise your audience may dismiss your story — religious leaders have a powerful influence on conservative communities.

And if you interview someone who is against evolution, to provide balance in your story, make sure to put it in a proper context by asking for the 'evidence' your source uses to support their claim.

Make sure those you quote, whether 'for' or 'against', know your region. Your audience will relate better to figures from their own communities, and the interviewees themselves have a better context for their answers.

Avoid poor understanding and bias

It sounds obvious, but make sure you clearly understand the science you are reporting — it's pivotal to getting the right message across. If you're not sure, nor will your audience be. So ask! Scientists and researchers can help explain things to you.

Focus on delivering clear, easy-to-understand facts. And approach the story with as few preconceptions as possible. Do you yourself have a cultural or religious bias against evolution? Try not to let that unbalance your interpretation.

When Al-Jazeera Arabic reported the discovery of 'Ardi', a 4.4 million-year-old fossil of a human ancestor (3 October 2009), their headline was "Ardi refutes Darwin!".

Poor understanding of the source material on the fossil 'Ardi' may have contributed to Al-Jazeera's misleading reporting

In fact, scientists saw the fossil as an important step that furthered our understanding of evolution.

The reasons for Al-Jazeera's misleading reporting are unclear — but a bias against evolution and journalists' poor understanding of the source material, published in Science, probably contributed.

If you are reporting a new discovery, be sure to reflect the scientists' judgement of its importance. Ask whether it changes our understanding in any way. Does it directly affect your target audience and community?

Sensitively and accurately reporting about the theory of evolution, and the research that draws on it, opens up a whole sector of modern science. If you can navigate this delicate and pervasive topic, you can offer communities a wealth of new ideas and understanding.

Will you change their fundamental beliefs? Maybe not, and that probably wasn't your aim anyway. But you will be able to explain the science.

Mohammed Yahia is editor of Nature Middle East and former regional coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa for SciDev.Net.

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