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Very often, when people find out I study Egyptology, they excitedly tell me about how ancient Egypt was a passion of theirs when they were younger. It is always gratifying to see that so many other people share my enthusiasm for Egypt, but it is disappointing too to see so many of them misled by the media in their casual attempts to learn more. Anyone who has ever loved Egypt will always prick up their ears whenever the latest news story about a new discovery hits the headlines. However, many of these news reports fail to present a balanced picture.

Generally, a new theory should be critiqued by peers and subjected to a certain amount of analytical scepticism before it is accepted. Apparently this is beyond many news publishers, at least when it comes to Egyptological stories. It seems like all it takes these days is issuing a press release.

I’d been thinking about writing about this topic for a while, when the story about the ‘discovery of Hatshepsut’s mummy’ broke. The treatment of the item in the Guardian, a UK paper I generally enjoy reading, left me horrified.

Hatshepsut is famous as a woman who became pharaoh of Egypt, taking control of the country and portraying herself using male royal iconography. Her magnificent funerary temple is located at Deir el-Bahri, but her body was never been found. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s antiquities, has announced that a previously unidentified mummy may be Hatshepsut. While it is possible that this may be true, the announcement seems slightly hasty. The evidence does not seem conclusive and I’d like to hear more information before I make up my mind about the matter, but that’s not the point here.

The article in the Guardian though presents the matter as concrete fact, and then goes on to present contradictory statements from the researchers. The title of the article is the very definitive statement: ‘Mummy is missing female pharaoh’. The author seems thoroughly convinced when she states unequivocally: ‘Egyptian authorities confirmed yesterday that thanks to DNA analysis and an ancient tooth, they have identified a mummy found a century ago as the remains of the pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut’. She quotes Dr. Hawass as saying, ‘We are 100% certain’, but then goes on to say that the DNA testing has not actually been completed: ‘While scientists are still matching those mitochondrial DNA sequences, Dr Gad said that preliminary results were “very encouraging”’.  Whatever ‘very encouraging’ means in terms of results, it certainly cannot be the categorical proof that the article suggests it is at the beginning. I very much doubt that it would stand up in the general scientific community.

The article also fails to note that the Discovery Channel wanted to find Hatshepsut for the purposes of a documentary programme and that the study was funded by them.

While I know that journalists are not afforded the same sort of opportunity for editorial criticism in their writing, I hope that they aren’t all quite as lacking in critical approach and can take a less blindly accepting approach to news stories.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated case. For example, a few months ago, a story about the Great Pyramid made news headlines across the world, and prompted a couple of my friends to approach me concerning what I thought about the ‘discovery’. The general idea they’d been given by newspapers and websites was that the question ‘how did the ancient Egyptians build the pyramids?’ had finally been answered once and for all.

The headline of the article on the BBC was: ‘Mystery of the Great Pyramid “solved”’. The impression given by the title is incredibly misleading, even though there are quotation marks around the word ‘solved’. The article gives the impression of simply being a regurgitated version of the theorist’s press release. Using a few more cautionary words to indicate that the theory was merely yet another addition to an ever-growing catalogue of hypotheses concerning the building of the pyramids wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The BBC’s website only offers short pieces highlighting main news stories, however, with an enormous international audience they wield a great deal of power over people’s perception of the news, and they shouldn’t just offer up as fact whatever theories are sent their way.

I don’t expect journalists to be experts on ancient Egypt, but when the general population recognizes the authority of a respected news source as proof of a story’s validity, I wish they would be a little more careful about how they present their idea of what’s going on in Egyptological research. For many people, the news is one of their only sources of information on Egypt, and it’s not very encouraging that their perceptions can so easily be manipulated by the media savvy and compliant news services. The ancient Egyptians had their share of official propaganda, but that shouldn’t mean we have to too.

3 Responses to “Egyptological theories magically become fact in news stories”

  1. on 02 Jul 2007 at 7:50 pmRich

    Unfortunatey, I think this is true of more than just Egyptology. For example, I regularly read utterly misleading stories about physics in the news media. (The worst culprit, surprisingly, seems to be New Scientist, and especially whoever writes the text for the magazine’s covers.)

  2. on 03 Jul 2007 at 1:22 amMargaret

    I agree. I’ve noticed other examples recently, and it’s not simply wrong information, but misrepresentation. For example, there was a BBC article about Facebook recently (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/6236628.stm) where what the BBC called ‘a long-term research project’, making it seem all official, was in fact just a blog article that even the author stressed was not formal research, clearly stating: ‘I want to highlight that this is not an academic article’.

  3. on 16 Aug 2007 at 5:00 amScrabcake

    I totally agree with you…I watched a history channel special on Nefertiti last night and cringed at every oversimplification and presentation of theory as fact. I had a pretty much permanent grimmace on my face throughout the show. The worst was the discovery channel’s documentary on the mummy of Nefertiti. That was just painful.
    This isn’t really limited to Egyptology. The media has figured out that people will pay to have their news in easy to digest, oversimplified packages with shinny wrapping. Why bother presenting theories as theories when theories as fact make a much more marketable and exciting headline?

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