The journalist calls the anthropologist

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Laura Miller.]

Anthropologists are routinely exhorted to make our work accessible to non-academics, to do strident outreach, to engage with the public, and to otherwise not hole up in our academic enclaves. Part of our effort involves fielding inquiries from journalists. We should be happy that writers are interested in talking to us and wish to include our opinions, right? Over the years, journalists have frequently left me telephone messages or sent email along these lines:

Dear Professor,
I’m a writer for Massive News, and I’m currently doing a story on Something Interesting. As you are an expert on Something Interesting, I would greatly appreciate a comment from you. My number is xxx. Since I am on a tight deadline, however, please call me within two hours.
Thank you,

I have found that often these journalists simply want to seed their articles with a few canned comments that will endorse their spin, and that they don’t actually care about my ideas. If you work in an academic environment in which you must constantly prove the relevance and worthiness of anthropology, as the majority of academic anthropologists at non-elite schools do, you might give in and provide what you hope will be an innocuous blurb. Although whatever you say is invariably twisted into a shape that will support the ethnocentric, racist or sexist slant the journalist has in their piece, this doesn’t matter at all to your university or your colleagues. All they care about is the Mention (which a university staff member will collect and quantify to demonstrate your Impact Factor). Indeed, universities employ well-paid staff in development offices who work with journalists to produce quick and inoffensive media bites by calling on a stable of faculty willing to be used for just such purposes. We become media whores because donors and administrators like seeing our names in the press. The fact that journalists expect an immediate response to their inquiries also highlights the difference in how academics and journalists do their business. Journalists routinely display as part of their normal behavior an expectation that academics are eager for an opportunity to talk to them just to get their name in the news.

Journalists themselves are under pressure to create catchy headlines, but often the result distorts or jumbles our findings. Here is one that just appeared in the BBC news in August 2012: “English language ‘originated in Turkey,’” in an article by Jonathan Ball. His piece reports on findings that appeared in Science in August 2012 that support the theory of an Anatolian origin for the Indo-European language family. This typically overblown title probably won’t hurt anyone, but in some cases anthropologists have found themselves the target of public anger and even threats when their research is misrepresented in the press. Many anthropologists who have had awful experiences with the press have been brave enough to relate them. Consider some of the revealing chapters in the edited volume When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography, edited by Caroline Brettell.

Of course, I’ve encountered some good journalists who think about and explore the issues they write about, but usually this was not the case. What I’m wondering is, can anthropologists justifiably decide not to engage with some of these journalistic phishing attempts? Must we respond every time someone wants us to deliver a quote if doing so merely endorses their simplistic ethnocentric, racist or sexist views? And, what about cases where the journalist picks your brain for hours, then uses your ideas and analyses without ever mentioning you after all? Particularly at this time in history, I would be happy to see an anthropological perspective inserted into US debates about sex, gender, women’s bodies, and gay marriage. Perhaps we need to train a new generation of journalist anthropologists?

29 thoughts on “The journalist calls the anthropologist

  1. As an unemployed anthropologist, I’ve been spending a lot of time doing independent journalism here in Toronto. It started when I began doing some activism related to my research topic (indigenous sovereignty an mining companies in Guatemala) and sort of spread from there and I started covering the G20 protests and criminalization of dissent, mining and indigenous people, and now I’m working on a long series involving interviews with temp auto workers on conditions in factories- all for independent left media like the Toronto Media Co-op, The Dominion, and Basics Community News. I’ve found that for indie media its much easier to bring a progressive frame re: race, gender, class, than it would ever be in the mainstream, and I’ve often been able to do very anthropological kinds of projects, using some of the same participant observation and interview techniques I picked up in school. The other thing with indie media of various kinds (i prefer the more structured kind with editors and such to the completely open kind) its possible for the Anthropologist themselves to write the article and popularize the idea as most don’t have permanent paid staff. I’ve noticed that journalistic writing is different from anthropology because you can’t make assumptions on what the background of the reader is. Also, in my covering stuff in the city I’ve run into another from grad student from my program who is now working as a photographer for slightly-more-mainstream publications here- I think that there are actually an awful lot of anthropologists already working in media of various kinds.

  2. I think this is a problem that faces all scientists, not just anthropologists. Let’s face it, science journalism is almost always bad. Not much of it is excellent or worthy of its material, even when it comes to things the public love, like the Higgs boson or the recent transit of Venus. On the other hand, a lot of the people I have met in anthropology departments studied journalism either before or after their anthropology qualification, so perhaps your hope for a new generation of anthropologist-journalists is already being fulfilled.

    Also, I’m tired of hearing about the Anatolian hypothesis. It is not consistent with the data, and the articles in Science used a narrow method with little to no archaeological input and which avoided all of the reliable methods for finding these things out. The archaeological data is all-important, and is far more supportive of a steppe origin for Proto-Indo-European. And the linguistics supports this as well, especially as speakers of Proto-Uralic must have been neighbours of Proto-Indo-European speakers prior to the propagation of each – and Uralic languages are found nowhere near Anatolia. The Anatolian hypothesis is a zombie argument, and it’s annoying to see it featuring in Science and on the BBC. Harrumph.

  3. “Of course, I’ve encountered some good journalists who think about and explore the issues they write about, but usually this was not the case.”

    I think this post paints a pretty bleak portrait of “the media” and journalists in general. As with many professions, journalism has its good and bad practitioners. I think there are quite a lot of excellent journalists out there, and I think we anthros could learn a thing or two from some of them. They do, after all, have to actually communicate with wider audiences as a part of standard operating procedure. At the same time, I think we anthros certainly could teach journalists a thing or two as well.

  4. @Megan It would be a good thing if there were more people like you writing for mainstream media in addition to the indie media. Do you think anthropologists are rare in the ranks of NYT, Boston Globe, so on because the mainstream press is a difficult guild to enter?

  5. @Ryan, indeed there are many fantastic journalists who regularly write stellar pieces for the popular press such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Rather than journalistic prose style and manner of presenting ideas, I was interested in knowing if others have had less than positive experiences being interviewed by journalists.

  6. Guys, I don’t have numbers at my fingertips; but the scuttlebutt I hear around the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo and the advertising trade press I read suggest that journalists are in a situation that may be worse that that of the anthropologists who want their jobs. The reason is clear. The local newspapers where a lot of journalists got their start are going out of business. Local TV isn’t much better, with the relationship of those who have the jobs now to those who want them very much like that of tenured faculty to adjuncts. Journalism has become another winner-take-all game like music or professional sports. Many will try, but few will make it.

    Hate to be a downer, but Charles Menzies point in a related thread holds true here as well. We are talking about a society wide, indeed global, problem that affects all sorts of people looking for what were once believed to be secure white collar jobs. It’s what John Judis and Ruy Teixeira talk about in The Emerging Democratic Majority, where they observe that growing numbers of white collar “professionals” now find themselves in the same position vis-a-vis management as the skilled craftsmen who formed the AFL did a couple of generations back. It’s precisely what David Harvey predicts in The Condition of Postmodernity, the shrinking of big organizations and the outsourcing of work to cheap, temporary labor. It is also what pop management gurus like Daniel Pink describe in A Whole New Mind, where outsourcing and automation create a playing field where only those who combine the imagination and persistence to reinvent themselves and the industries that employ them are likely to do well.

    Step 1: Act like anthropologists. Find out what’s going on outside our own playground.

  7. Around 4 or 5 years ago, I received a call from the “assistant producer” of a cable network show. I was asked if I wanted to be on a panel discussing “sex and evolution.” I tried to find out what he meant – the role of sexual reproduction in distribution of alleles, or sexual selection, etc.? Finally pinned him down to the “evolution of sex roles.”

    So, I said, “Do you mean . . .” and went on to present a synopsis of Washburn and Lancaster, and threw in some Popejoy. He got very excited, and said that was EXACTLY what they were looking for, and he would have the producer call me to finalize an agreement and set up the schedule. I said, “I thought so. I would be very happy to discuss these ideas as long as I can give a more current and nunaced critique of them.” And I went on to demonstrate just how I would go about that. He became flustered and said, “But that’s not what we’re looking for, if you want to be on television, than just stick to what we want.” I said that if you are seeking a professional for their expertise or knowledge, than you have to trust their expertise or knowledge; don’t presume to tell them what to say. Needless to say, they weren’t interested.

  8. I don’t understand the reluctance to work with the media. When we teach, we change the way we describe complex ideas so that our students are able to understand them. When we undergo peer review, we rewrite our work to reflect the desires of the journal and the input of the reviewer. Dealing with the media is no different. It’s important to get our ideas out to the public. To do that, you need to rephrase them in clear and accessible terms and respect the limitations of the media format.

  9. @ Martin Thanks for the story. I appreciate that you read the post carefully and understand what I’m asking. The issue I’m raising has nothing to do with how we present our ideas, but with the manner in which the media frames our ideas or mangles them. I have many stories similar to the one you told, and wondered if others do as well.
    @Sarah Getting our ideas out there in clear prose is not what I’m thinking about here, although it is also a problem worth discussing. Rather, I’m frustrated by the sort of situation Martin noted above- the media having a predetermined story and merely wanting some professor to support it or spice it up.

  10. Hi Laura,

    “Rather than journalistic prose style and manner of presenting ideas, I was interested in knowing if others have had less than positive experiences being interviewed by journalists.”

    Yes, I get what you are asking for here.

    You also wrote:

    “I appreciate that you read the post carefully and understand what I’m asking. The issue I’m raising has nothing to do with how we present our ideas, but with the manner in which the media frames our ideas or mangles them.”

    But I think it has everything with how we present our ideas–how we collaborate, what journalists expect us to do, and how we follow up with the process. I think the questions you are asking here make some big generalizations about “the media” and journalists. They all become one big bloc that “mangles” our ideas. As if the problem only exists on one side. Granted, I have no doubt that there are plenty of journalists who have either butchered or completely misrepresented anthropologists’ ideas, statements, etc. But I am reluctant to assume that this is only a one-sided issue. If there is a consistent issue with communication, miscommunication, or misrepresentation between anthros and journalists, it makes sense to me to ask why this is happening, how it’s happening, and what role we (the anthros) play in the process. Maybe part of the problem is that we end up allowing a lot of others to write our public anthropology for us, and then we get upset when we don’t like what they have done or how they have framed things. Maybe another part of the problem is that journalists often just think about calling anthros for a quick “money quote” or statement, and that’s that.

    Part of the underlying argument here sounds a little like the “anthropology is way better than journalism” argument that I have heard over and over again since my undergrad years. Yes, I think anthropology has tremendous value, but I also think that if we are really concerned about how our ideas get out to the wider public, then we have to put in the time to really make that happen.

  11. @ Ryan I don’t think anthropology is better than journalism. In fact, I’m currently editing a special journal issue on the Asia knowledge industry inside and outside the academy, and have invited non-academics to contribute because I value their perspectives. I had hoped it would be clear that any generalizations I make are about my individual experiences. As I stated above, I think we need to get our ideas out to a wider public. But perhaps writing essays that we ourselves have control over– such as the piece Sarah wrote on adjunct labor in academe for Al Jazeera–is much more effective than fielding loaded questions from journalists.

  12. As a journalist and an anthropologist (finishing up a master’s, not an academic) I would truly like to see anthropology more accessible to the public.
    Anthropology has a lot to offer the public and I think could make itself more relevant by being more approachable. That is to say, by being confident in our topic, we should be able to communicate quickly and easily to the general public.
    Journalists, in their way, are also studying humankind. If a journalist should actually ask for some information, we just have to avoid giving an hour-long lecture, but get to the meat of the matter.
    Sociologists have taken over the public conversation, simply because they are more willing to share. (Though I argue with their methodology and, at times, a numbers-crunch that arrives at a shallow conclusion).
    If it isn’t possible for a particular anthropologist to engage with the journalist, perhaps just answer with your truth. If that is along the lines of saying something like “the public could not possibly understand the complexities of this matter” or “I do not trust journalists,” say so and move along.
    Of course, that is a loss to both sides.
    I understand the dialogic nature of our science means an inevitable criticism from the anthropologic community of he or she who ventures forth with a comment, but if more of us went forth with courage in our vast, in-depth knowledge, the global community would profit enormously.

  13. I definitely get the fear of having the work we are morally and intellectually invested in “mangled” – I thought about that a good bit while writing my MA thesis on pregnant and parenting youth (even though I doubt I’ll get any calls for a few years). But, as you say, it seems like the main culprit in shallow use our expertise is the time crunch. I wonder if, instead of waiting to be contacted, it is possible for us to contact them? I realize that won’t work for a lot of the news-type stories, but it seems like there is an under-appreciated opportunity for collaboration …

  14. @ Sam, in your case the research topic is one that I can envision being welcome by some magazines (like Ms. or Harper’s ) as an unsolicited contribution. It’s a topic that Americans are generally interested in so there’s a good chance you’d be successful.

  15. @ Colleen, I’m glad to know there are people like you coming out of universities. In the future your informed perspective will be very valuable. In the early 1990s my research on Japanese business was mangled in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. And it isn’t that I have such complex ideas (I don’t!). It is very like the situation Martin described above: a journalist calls up with a finished article in hand and simply wants me to supply a blub to support an ethnocentric and sexist perspective on “those wacky, weird Japanese.” If I try to discuss the topic with them, to offer a different view of the universe, they end the interview. Aside from asking academics to “make our research accessible,” isn’t there another issue here?

  16. I’ve had a few good experiences with journalism, but the negative experiences unfortunately outnumber the good. High quality, national level media outlets are usually pretty clear about what they want. I’ve appeared on (national) morning and evening news TV and radio programs and in general that was a good experience. Problems most often arise with desperate freelancers, so I would say the problem is not reporting in general, or anthropology (academia), but any system of employment that, through its insecure and unequal contracting system, encourages unethical professional behavior. I’ve read about myself being interviewed in interstate newspapers by people who never contacted me (they just pulled written quotes as if I had spoken to them). Funny thing was, the quotes were about Japan and their article was about sport in Australia – they just took the ‘Japan’ part out! My university contacted the newspaper and asked for a retraction and an apology – they printed a retraction, but we never got an apology.

  17. @Carolyn Thanks for your experienced views on this. I hadn’t considered the distinction between journalists who go after our participation in media that you brought up– the various layers and the structure of journalistic employment. I think John above also alluded to the stratification and scrambling that exists in journalism these days. These are good things to keep in mind.

  18. @Al Theories about the origin of language families (geez, debate about Indo-European is mild compared to arguments about early Japonic languages and their relation to Korean) continues to vex the field of linguistic anthropology. What do you think linguistic anthropologists (BTW we have been a separate field from linguistics for a few decades) be doing to engage not only with the press, but with other subfields in anthropology?

  19. Hi Laura,

    “But perhaps writing essays that we ourselves have control over– such as the piece Sarah wrote on adjunct labor in academe for Al Jazeera–is much more effective than fielding loaded questions from journalists.”

    Ya, I think you are right that taking charge of how we are represented would be a good way to go–rather than allowing others to take quotes and run. Maybe we have to learn to cut those kinds of folks off at the pass, so to speak. I also think that Carolyn makes a good point above about trying to avoid the “unethical” types (no matter what field)–although that’s way easier said than done. How could anyone possibly know via one phone call that the person on the other end is some unethical hack?!

    Anyway, I keep thinking that a partial solution could be an effort to build better working relations between anthros and journalists.

  20. @laura I have no idea why there are few anthropologists in mainstream media, although i agree it would be a good thing. I’m not at all from a social class that would ever have facilitated entry into such entities, nor do I know anyone who works for them, so I don’t think I have any insights into that.

    I do think people should be willing to do media where they are at. Like, if they are an undergrad anthropologist, publish some anthropologically informed pieces in the campus paper. Many milleiux have some kind of publication. And anthropologists who find themselves well connected and living in new york should write for big, mainstream publications.

  21. What do you think linguistic anthropologists (BTW we have been a separate field from linguistics for a few decades) be doing to engage not only with the press, but with other subfields in anthropology?

    Actually, I don’t think that’s the problem with Indo-European origin theories – it’s not a matter of engaging or not engaging the media. The problem is the same one Michael Smith highlighted here: that Science likes to publish articles on anthropological or archaeological topics that use high tech methods as opposed to the scientific application of more traditional anthropological methods. A steppe origin for Indo-European is supported by so many lines of data that it’s ridiculous to suggest an Anatolian origin. An Anatolian origin fails to explain many of the most basic bits of data, like the spread of Tocharian and (especially) Indo-Iranian across the steppe. It doesn’t explain chariot technologies or wool technologies. It’s also Eurocentric, in assuming that the most important propagation of Indo-European occurred in Europe c. 6000 BCE (which is also far, far too early to be realistic). It’s just an attempt to correlate language propagation with farming, but it doesn’t work in this case, nor in several others.

    The authors of the Science articles were mostly not anthropologists, and they used a statistical method derived from epidemiology to establish the Anatolian origin, applying the method to Swadesh lists from a set of Indo-European languages. I’m sure it sounded very scientific to the reviewers at Science.

    Also, I think the reason there aren’t many anthropologists in the mainstream media is quite simple: you need a good journalism degree to get your foot in the door these days. That’s certainly true at the BBC, and I assume it is at other organisations.

  22. My experiences with journalists, after I had a couple of initial bad ones, have been really good. I’ve been appearing pretty regularly in media here in Australia, including being on the list of contacts for a local tabloid TV production here in Sydney where I regularly comment on damn near anything: ‘man caves,’ cranky people who call the government a lot, planking, the evolution of sex, the death of Levi-Strauss, uncontacted Indians in the Amazon… A ton of stuff. I even tell the reporters, including one of the anchors, ‘You need a quote about anything having to do with culture, you call me…’

    I think you’ve got to realise what journalists are after and work with them. In my experience, most anthropologists say boring stuff or say interesting stuff in ways that make it impossible to show on tv or quote in the paper. Think of things from the journalists’ point of view: they need high impact quotes and an interesting angle. If you give them that, they’re happy, and you get to promote our discipline. If you waffle, hedge or talk academicese, you’re wasting everyone’s time, your own included, and if they do show you, you make our field sound like it’s full of wafflers, hedgers or people who can’t turn off their jargon.

    Never say anything on camera or into a recorder that you’re not ready to see quoted out of context (my initial mistakes some twenty+ years ago were usually this), and don’t be afraid of acting like an actor: that is, think about what YOU want to say and then get it right, even if it means saying, ‘No… no… let me start again.’ They’ll edit out that stuff.

    Journalists are going to get someone to talk on video, don’t worry. If it’s not an anthropologist, it’s going to be someone else (probably a bloody psychologist). And if you don’t like what you see passing for ‘wisdom’ on tv or in the papers, then you better be ready to comment. It’s kind of like teaching introduction to anthropology: saying ‘it’s complicated’ is just a way of saying, ‘You’re too dumb for me to explain it, or I can’t explain it.’

    Like Ryan, I think that this is a two-sided issue. I’ve walked away from journalists who I realised were simply impossible, but I’ve also had the experience of completely changing a journalist’s angle on a story: in one case, I think I even changed the overall trajectory of a documentary series by having long talks with the primary researcher for the series. Don’t get me wrong; there are terrible journalists who mangle quotes (but then again, I’ve had that done by fellow academics who have cited me). But looking around the field, I also see a real gap in our savvy about public relations and getting our message out.

  23. What we need in the US is a media-smart anthropologist who can do what Greg does, be willing to put their faces out there and similarly comment on anything (especially on marriage and those bizarre conservative ideas about conception). I have had a few good experiences, like a recent August interview with Patrick St. Michel for his piece in The Atlantic, “For Japan’s Justin Biebers, No Selena Gomezes Allowed.” But St. Michel is a Japan expert so he didn’t ask idiotic questions. It’s the reporters who have deeply held stereotypes and just want us to lard their creepy articles that I had in mind with this post.

  24. Laura writes “What we need in the US is a media-smart anthropologist who can do what Greg does, be willing to put their faces out there and similarly comment on anything (especially on marriage and those bizarre conservative ideas about conception).”

    This is precisely what Bill Beeman proposed in an op-ed piece in, IIRC, the Anthropology News a number of years ago (regarding the first Gulf War, I think, and anthropologists’ general lack of participation in public discourse about the Middle East), and he has been living that advice himself for years. The suggestion pops up from time to time, but not many people take it….

    But be careful what you ask for. Not all anthropologists have the same views of marriage and other social issues:

  25. I tried to get one of my professional science journalist friends to come and leave a comment on this post as it fell deeper into the annals of “True story. This happened to me…” but he was put off by the whole tone of the conversation which has thoroughly homogenized “the” media — as if there ever was such a singularity. Indeed, such overtures as “Some individual journalists are good…” isn’t far off from “Some of my best friends are black…” so I can’t blame him. I mean when do anthropologists ever dwell on individual experiences like this?

    Alright. I’m done being irritated. Here are two resources that, although dated, might be beneficial.
    “A Scientists Guide to Talking with the Media: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists” by Richard Hayes and Daniel Grossman
    “Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies for Grassroots Organizing” by Charlotte Ryan

    If you open up the Amazon pages for these books the “Also Viewed” stream has lots of interesting titles!

  26. @Matt As I noted a few times, my own “generalizations” are about my personal experiences, but there are hundreds of them dating from the 1980s until now. Hey, maybe if I submitted an IRB on myself I could have produced a publishable study of this by now.

  27. It’s likely the case that my experiences with journalists have been creepy because of some of the topics I have published on, which are not attracting the science writers. I usually get calls and email from journalists who don’t know anything about Japan, anthropology, or women.

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