[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:
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.
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?