At NYTimes and HTribune, editors frame Bush climate plan

Imagine for the moment a classic work of modern art as pictured above. When a curator takes a heavy and bulky wooden frame, places it around the complex and uncertain image, a viewers' eyes are drawn to certain dimensions of that painting over others, perhaps leading to a specific interpretation of the artist's intent or even a specific emotional reaction.

If a second curator replaces that bulky wooden frame with a much lighter metallic one, a viewer's gaze might be drawn immediately to other aspects of the painting, potentially altering the interpretation of the artist's intended meaning.

Moreover, based on the expertise of the viewer along with his/her background, one frame might resonate more distinctly than the other. The point is that when a gallery audience is asked to make sense of an uncertain and complex painting, perception will be at least in part both frame and reference dependent. It's a function of the artist's image, the chosen frame by the curator, and the predispositions of the viewer.

A similar type of framing occurs during the news production process, on display today as the same story filed by Andrew Revkin was edited very differently at the sister pubs The International Herald Tribune and The NY Times. This framing-by-way-of-editing leads to slightly different interpretations as to the motivations of the Bush administration and how experts are evaluating its new climate plan.

At the International Herald Tribune, the impression is that there might be something worthwhile in the Bush plan. In fact, the headline signals that last week's initial reaction to the plan might have been too harsh. For its international readership, the article leads with specifics on support from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, a very strong opinion leader endorsement for that audience. The article closes with comments from Stanford communication professor Jon Krosnick, who implies that public opinion trends have left a once reluctant administration with nothing to lose by offering up meaningful policy.

Example A: International Herald Tribune

Headline: Bush critics warming to his plans for cutting emissions

Lede Paragraphs: After an initial chorus of criticism from environmental groups and European politicians, there have been significant expressions of support for President George W. Bush's shift last week to supporting cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming. On Friday, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki Moon - who plans his own push on climate action within the United Nations this autumn - endorsed Bush's proposal, particularly if it tied into talks aimed at invigorating the Framework Convention on Change, a 1992 climate treaty that has not significantly blunted emissions.

"I think it is a positive statement, in the sense that the United States, at the level of President Bush, has realized the urgency and importance of climate change," Ban said. "I hope such an effort by the United States will be mutually reinforcing the international community's efforts, particularly led by the United Nations."

End paragraph: Jon Krosnick, a professor of political science and psychology at Stanford University, said the timing of Bush's plan was predictable given the tendency of most politicians to wait on complex issues until public attitudes solidify. Polling now shows many Americans want government action to cut climate risks, he said.

"Right now, with their approval ratings as low as they are, with real questions about the electability of a Republican candidate in 2008, this step was logical," Krosnick said. "There is little to be lost and lot to be gained. If he sticks with it, the president could take the wind out of the sails of his critics."

At the NY Times, the headline is far less positive in characterizing reaction, implying that there are at least a few who find something to like with the Bush plan, though expert opinion still weighs in heavily against it. The lede paragraph reinforces this impression, asserting any support is "conditional" upon the administration following through on its plan. The end quote in the article, from Dartmouth professor and environmental advocate Michael Dorsey, emphasizes that on climate change, given its track record, the Bush administration is not to be trusted.

Example B: The New York Times

Headline: Bush Climate Plan: Amid Nays, Some Maybes
Label/rubric: News Analysis

President Bush's shift last week toward cutting worldwide emissions linked to global warming was greeted with widespread skepticism. But mixed in with the doubts was a substantial dose of support, albeit conditional.

To some scientists, officials and experts immersed for years in troubled treaty talks under the United Nations, the president's new plan is a potentially useful tool for gaining new consensus. The plan calls for rounding up the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and, in 18 months, settling on nation-by-nation programs for slowing emissions and on a long-term common goal for reducing them.

End Paragraph: Michael K. Dorsey, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, said Mr. Bush would have to show concrete progress in the fall to overcome "a legacy of stalling, back-pedaling and undermining of international talks."

"Give us a press conference to say what you've done yesterday," he said. "Don't tell us any more what you're going to do tomorrow."

UPDATE: Over at CJR Daily, Curtis Brainard has a review of how the major news organizations covered Bush's climate announcement.
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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.