It’s like public anthropology week here at SM! Joana and Pal are writing fascinating stuff about engaging beyond academia. And just to keep the discussion going, I wanted to re-post a comment offered by Brian P (science journalist) which is like a HOWTO for anthropology journalism. I hope he doesn’t mind my shameless re-purposing, but it’s some truly excellent stuff. AAA publicity folks, please take note. My comments are interleaved.
If the field wants more attention from the press, here are some ideas:
1) Hire good science writers to write and distribute press releases. Believe me, there are plenty of quality science writers looking for work. Journals could easily pay a few of them to write press releases on the top two or three papers per issue. Current Anthropology does this and I’m grateful for the service. Not many journalists (probably almost zero) read the primary anthro journals, let alone secondary journals in the field. We need to be led to the fountain.
* “good science writers” might include all those anthropology MAs and PhDs who didn’t end up going into academia for whatever reason. There are a lot of people on this blog alone who just enjoy keeping up with anthropology and who might have the skills to do just this. unfortunately, the part about hiring them seems pretty unlikely. Editors of AAA journals aren’t even paid, to say nothing of science writers. So this task falls to us (see #4 below) and if I were editor of a journal, I would make it a priority to find people willing to do this task on a volunteer basis–or maybe for a free subscription if they happen to be unaffiliated? If Current Anthropology can do it, why can’t the AAA?
2) Post those press releases on Eurekalert.org, which is run by AAAS, and on other services science reporters scan for news, such as Newswise.
* this seems like a no-brainer. But upon looking, the only alerts are from Current Anthropology. In order to post an alert you need to be a “public information officer” for an organization of some kind. Does the AAA even have a “Public Information Officer”? A subscription to Eurekalert? I might be willing to renew my membership to the AAA if I knew some of the money went to hiring science writers to promote our research on sites like Eurekalert.
3) When preparing press releases, try to relate the work to current events. Make it relevant.
* I would return here again to my point about temporality. Anthropologists work slowly, but that can be an advantage. It means that a longer term sense of what counts as “relevant” and how to connect current problems that seem new to long-standing structural and cultural transformations is a great way to do exactly what Brian suggests. Just because our work analyzes a time and period that is now outside of the current news-cycle attention span does not mean that it cannot be made relevant to what’s going on today. Figuring out how to stake this claim is intellectually challenging work, not just publicity pandering.
4) If you have the aptitude and inclination to write for a popular audience, DO. Write and submit opinion pieces for national newspapers, Nature, Scientific American, and Science. We read these. New Scientist and Scientific American and Scientific American Mind run articles written by researchers (usually they are heavily edited). It’s cheap labor for magazines to do this, and more and more of them are probably heading in that direction.
* I’m not sure I fully agree with this one. On the one hand, those who can and want to should, and will. On the other hand, maybe it only means talking with someone who does like to write for a popular audience about current research, or sending alerts to those who do like to write such things. If I got an email box full of eurekalerts about recent research in cultural anthro, I might read some and write about some on SM. As it stands, I just have an email box full of requests to review such research, which means I can’t write about it, even if it’s interesting. I’d be happy to trade in half my peer review requests for “publicize it” requests. The fact that very few of the leading lights of cultural anthropology deign to do exactly such a thing cannot be good for our business.
– Prepare for some disappointment. Yes, some journalists will get it wrong. Sometimes you won’t like our pithy language or our need to strip away the caveats and get to the heart of the issue. Well, that’s the price of admission.
* well said, sir brian. Indeed, if obscurity and widespread public ignorance of anthropology is what we want, we’ve already got that in spades, so we can feel free to ignore these suggestions and happily avoid any disappointment.
– Let me say it again. FIND WAYS TO MAKE YOUR WORK RELEVANT. What does it tell us about something happening now that’s important to large groups of people? What currency does the work have? I once wrote about some studies of infanticide in baboons – and the researcher was willing to draw inferences about human behavior from his work. That made the work newsworthy and interesting.
* and let me say it again: cultural anthropology has a different temporality than journalism, even though they often cover very similar topics. So the art of “making it relevant” is also the art of seeing cultural change and significance at different scales, connecting the just-forgotten with the all-too-present. A lot of what cultural anthropology has to offer is the re-framing of persistently polarized debates. Ours is not a logic of discovery, but one of assertion and reorientation.