Anthropology Journalism HOWTO

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, 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.

Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

6 thoughts on “Anthropology Journalism HOWTO

  1. Great post !

    Point 1 and 2… wow ! It makes so much sense. And it would make a great difference too.

    I was especially interested by Point 3. Granted, it’s something that is a good exercice for any scientist. But as far as anthropology is concerned, I’m always amazed by the distance factor that seem to inform the perception of the discipline among many people – I often hear people say that anthropology is about the distant past, the geographically distant, etc. So point 3, or the art of making it relevant as you say, is about providing links and bridges to bring anthropological input closer to people. I liked your thoughts on learning to articulate different scales and temporalities, it sounds like it’s the right way to do this.

  2. “A lot of what cultural anthropology has to offer is the re-framing of persistently polarized debates.”

    EXACTLY. There is a lot of debate out there, but much of it tends to gravitate to the extremes–and a lot is lost or overlooked in the process. But then, that’s because so much “debate” is actually about one-liners and making political points. I think that there is a lot of fertile ground for some re-framing/disruption of this whole stream of public political discourse. Why not? I think that the usual polemics need some disruption.

  3. I’d rather learn how to write a press release than entrust a science writer to represent my research. They might do a fine job, but it seems like the principal investigator would be best qualified to pitch a story, assuming s/he knows how to drop the jargon and connect their work to current events.

  4. Dirty little secret time: Confessions of an anthropologist who wound up in advertising.

    Writing a press release is not that hard. Writing a press release that results in media coverage may be.

    The basic rule of press release writing is to realize that you are offering an editor a news story and your job is to make it as easy as possible for the editor to get it into print. So you write it like a news story, using the classic inverted pyramid form. The lead sentence is the foundation from which everything else hangs. Ideally, it should communicate the whole story in one line. Here “whole” doesn’t mean every detail; it means that if the audience reads or hears nothing else they will still be able to tell someone what the story is about.

    The hard part is coming up with a story that people who are not included in the handful of folks already interested in the esoterica of your research will also find interesting. A classic test: Could you say that sentence to your mom and have her eager to hear more instead of having her eyes glaze over?

    Why do archeology and paleontology get good coverage? Just about everybody is interested in where they or others in whom they are interested come from. So a story like, “New missing link found in Ethiopia” or (from this morning’s Japanese newspaper) “Carbon dating confirms that skeleton found in Okinawa is 25,000-year old paleolithic human” taps a broad vein of human interest. Here in Japan, where what it means to be Japanese is a perennial hot-button question, archeology stories regularly make the front page of national newspapers. “Excavation in Nara could be Himiko’s palace” is hot news.

    Cultural anthropology can be hot news. Whatever scholars now think of the research, Margaret Mead’s _Coming of Age in Samoa_ tapped into a widespread anxiety about teenage behavior. But it’s harder these days to find that kind of hook, in a world where everyone who watches TV or browses the Internet already know that people behave in all sorts of different ways.

    The right place to start is likely to be audience research. Do you know what concerns or excites the people who read or watch the medium in which you want your story to appear?
    Can you talk about your research in a way that THEY will find interesting?

    If the answer is, “Yes,” and you can squeeze that down into a strong lead sentence, the rest is just filling in the details; how much depending on the amount of space you have.

  5. Sorry, I’m kinda coming in late here now, but when working with media, it’s good to know the kinds of constraints journalists operate under. It can go a long way towards improving your dealings with them, giving you more control over HOW your work gets covered. This is what I’m writing the media guide for.

    Number one piece of advice, get a science writer to write the story, not a general reporter, if you possible can (general reporters cover crime, politics, sports, etc.-not your best fit). Most science writers have advanced science degrees, they will understand you, and yes, there are quite a few who cover social science.(Find them at NASW-

    Here’s a few imperatives reporters generally have to follow. Knowing these can help you understand why they operate the way they do, and how you can work it to your advantage.

    • Deadline-driven writing: Usually counted in hours or days. This means working fast, summarizing, getting to the point quickly, grabbing good, short quotes. Think about your work like this-can you present it yourself quickly, succinctly and simply? Practice.

    • Space constraints: Often dictated by advertising space, in newspapers. Stories must fit tat space, or the radio air time, or the TV spot. Reporters can’t fit everything in, so they include the most important parts only, and summarize a lot. Call it tyranny of the technology.

    • The news angle: What happened? Why’s it important? Is it new, bigger, or faster? Is it urgent, a breakthrough, or relevant to your community? Tell them.

    • The human angle: There has to be a reason someone will want to read the story. What interests most people? Stuff that that has relevance for them. We all want to know “how does this affect me? My kids? My world? My mortgage?”. Reporters must frame what they write around this, and you want to get used to thinking about your work from this angle.

    • Writing for the public: For media, it’s the educated (or not so educated) public – depends on the media outlet. What words do they use? How much will they understand about this subject? Writing about science for the public means writing about complexity in a way most people can understand it. Analogies help. So does (sorry) simplification. Numbers get rounded off, quotes get tightened to phrases. Think about your own material in those terms, so it gets filtered through the journalist the way you want it.

    Concise writing: The opposite of academic. In general, the conclusion comes first (think inverted pyramid), the rest follows in as few words as possible, just enough to get the job done. No jargon, no buzzwords.

    Remember, more words don’t mean you’re smarter.



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