This post is part of the revived Carnival of Journalism, a monthly event, organized by David Cohn, in which journalists and academics will blog on a given topic. I fit into the later group of participants, as I’m not a journalist, but an Anthropologist who is studying the transformation of journalism within the US. That said, I have a particular ongoing interest in this month’s CoJ prompt: Reflect on the Knight Commission‘s recommendation that universities should “Increase the[ir] role…As hubs of journalistic activity” and “integrate digital and media literacy….”
In recent months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Applied Anthropology, sometimes also referred to as Public Anthropology. What specifically is the role of Anthropology in public discourse? Or rather, what could it be? What follows is a brief meditation on what Anthropologists, who lets face it, largely reside in Universities, can do to increase journalistic activities.
Roughly a year ago, anthropologist Chris Kelty wrote an insightful analysis of the situation in a post Savage Minds1 entitled Why is there no Anthropology Journalism? In the article Kelty proposed three big barriers to the integration of Anthropology into journalism:
- “Because there isn’t as much Anthropology as there is science [or humanities] to report on” — in other words, when looking at the wealth of research being conducted across the various disciplines (sciences, social sciences, and humanities), the amount of actual anthropological work is relatively minuscule.
- “Because journalists already do what Anthropologists do, only better” — We are sister disciplines/professions/crafts, so there is crossover. But one thing that differentiates us is time scale. Journalism works to report immediate facts. Anthropology then takes years to build theories of what was happening behind those facts (or why a certain set of facts, as opposed to others, were taken as “the facts”). Journalism works at the speed of hours and days. Anthropology typically works at the pace of years.
- “Because Anthropologists [and Anthropology journals] do not report on their research” — Anthropologists (and many academics) have a tendency to talk mainly among ourselves, typically in big and scary words, and rarely, if ever, condense our research down to publicly consumable “elevator talks.” Instead, that the focus to publish in (pay-walled) institutional journals and respond, in long form, to ongoing Anthropological conversations renders our work inaccessible to the general public.
There’s a lot in Kelty’s analysis that’s worth addressing. For this post, I’d like to side-step points one and two. Let’s assume that regardless of quantity of output, anthropologists have something valuable to say, and that this knowledge can be applied to events as they unfold, as opposed to focusing on retrospective events.
Instead, I’d like to concentrate on point three (lack of reporting) and think about it in terms of another recent anthro post. Almost a year after Kelty’s article, Miami University’s Mark Allen Peterson made the following pronouncement in a post on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s blog:
One thing is painfully clear: Linguistic Anthropology has a public relations problem. The media does not come to linguistic anthropologists. Our expertise on language, collective and individual, is not established.
Peterson goes on to suggest a number of ways for individual anthropologists to build “public expertise,” including constructing homepages and maintaining blogs, editing Wikipedia pages, adding content to YouTube, and using social media. All of these are steps that make sense, and can help raise one’s “Google index,” making it more likely for a journalist to find you when they are researching a story. But it does little, at least in the short term, to increasing engagement.
The big issue2 that Anthropology faces is that we’ve, for the most part, bought into a “field of dreams” sort of mindset: if we produce good scholarship, they will come and interview us. This tends to ignore the barriers that prevent journalists from “getting at” that scholarship (firewalls, arcane language, expectation that you’re at least familiar with the texts/arguments that one is engaging). It also ignores the reality of the practice of journalism, especially how fast stories have to come together. As I keep re-learning through interviews with journalists, the average journalist doesn’t have the luxury of reflection when facing a daily (or even weekly) deadline.
Here’s the immediate problem: the values that shape “good Anthropological scholarship” render that scholarship useless to journalists. The impasse that needs to be acknowledged and resolved is that, up to this point, the expectation is that the journalists are supposed to bridge the gap.
Peterson’s posting is a nod towards changing this. And in general I agree with what he’s saying. But outreach on social media is fundamentally different than direct outreach to journalists (and journalistic institutions).
So, what can be done on the institutional, university level? Beyond the usual “change tenure requirements“3 , here are a couple tactical ideas based on my discussions with journalists and my past experiences as a visiting professor:
- Accept that journalists are not undergraduates. Regardless of how interested they are in a topic, they typically don’t have time to read and absorb the paper, the chapter, or the book. The responsibility of boiling it down is on you (and note that I said boiling it down, versus dumbing it down). Which leads to…
- When it comes to publicizing your work, take TLDR (Too long, didn’t read) to heart. Love the 140 character limit — if you can’t make me at least curious in 140 characters, there’s little chance of convincing a journalists to pay attention. Likewise, in interviews, start simple and let the journalist guide the conversation.
- Embrace existing institutional solutions. The majority of universities are already engaged in press outreach, go talk to these people. Get registered as a subject matter “expert.” They can help with access to various media outlets, because the more an individual scholar is seen as an expert, the more the institution is seen as the home of experts.
- Begin to cultivate individual relationships with reporters and editors who work in topic areas of interest. One method of getting at them is via the letters to the editor page. Other options include direct email engagement and …
- Building off Peterson’s point, start to follow journalists working within your field, especially on twitter, and be ready to respond. This isn’t about them following you, though that’s a hopeful outcome, it’s about you following them.
- Pitch stories. Seriously. There are a number of amazing academic journalist engagements going on right now — see The Atlantic’s ongoing publication of Syllabus-as-Essay feature as one example of this sort of collaboration.
- Write content for public consumption [thanks to Josh Braun for reminding me that this should explicitly be stated]. Anthropology, especially in the first half of the century, had a history of doing this (See Mead, Benedict, and Powdermaker as examples). Like it or not, the chances that most journalism outlets are going to add a social sciences beat are slim-to-none. Again, that doesn’t mean that content needs to be “dumbed-down” through the removal of any nuanced analysis. And, btw, learning to write this was is a challenge unto itself (for one of my attempts at finding the “sweet spot” check out this post on the inescapable politicization of the Tucson shooting which tries to work with Sahlins and Evans-Pritchard without getting too “academic-ie”)
Much like Smokey Bear reminds us that “only you can prevent Forest Fires,” at this point, only Anthropologists can make Anthropology relevant again. Doing that will requires an active engagement with the press. And said engagement means that we (Anthropologists) need to come more than half-way in order to reestablish a relationships that was largely lost quite some time ago.
- an academic blog specifically focused on the practice and culture of Anthropology [↩]
- The second issue is that, by and large, Anthropologists, especially since WWII, have allowed our focus on where we are studying (field site) to overshadow what we are studying when we get there. So when someone is reporting on a medical crisis in Haiti, for example, its easy for a reporter to think about how they can integrate Anthropology into a story. Unfortunately, if it’s a story about medical crisis in general, reporters, and most of the general public, are not trained to think that a Medical Anthropologist has much to say on that topic. This operationalization is our own fault, as, in many ways we operationalized ourselves years ago when, post WWII, the field tied it’s overall program to area studies, ceding the majority of direct engagement with modern, western culture to sociologists. [↩]
- a topic over which so much blood, sweat, ink, and pixels have been spilled that there’s little I can add, and given my state in the overall process, any attempt at addition would be the height of presumption [↩]