Archaeology and the Media Part 1: Why we don’t see eye to eye

Posted on September 25, 2012

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A few weeks back I saw this post on Savage Minds, The journalist calls the anthropologist, and have been meaning to write this post ever since.

I suggest you read ‘The journalist calls the anthropologists’. I would not be surprised if many of archaeologists feel the same way as this anthropologists. Judging by the comments left at the bottom many people have had “bad experiences” with journalists e.g.

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)….. The fact that journalists expect an immediate response to their inquiries also highlights the difference in how academics and journalists do their business.

The author mentions how journalists do business differently but then stops there. They complain about the media but never investigate why they do things differently. It is assumed that journalists write stories with slants because they can. I think one of the commenters got it right:

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

In this post I explain the rules of journalism’s playground and why it is journalist always say “archaeologists discover dinosaurs” when we don’t. In the next post I will explain how to play in this playground and how to win at those games.

The first thing you need to understand is how a journalists works, for this I will use a daily newspaper with a morning circulation as an example.  So typical day of a journalist follows this generic template-

  • early morning- you find stories, follow up tips e.g. scan about 50 emails (no joke you will read 100-200 emails a day) scan through hundreds of press releases, return phone calls- probably dozens
  • meeting with editor around 9 or 10. Here is when you, the journalist,  pitch your ideas to the editor. You will probably pitch close to a half a dozen, maybe more. Some will be picked up and some won’t.
  • After the meeting, till the editor deadline in the afternoon around 2 or 3, you now write all of the stories that got picked up. YES, most stories are written the same day AND in only a few hours. Here is a real kicker- pitch 5 stories and they all got picked up? Well you have to write all 5 stories by the afternoon deadline to get them into print.
  • Turn in stories by deadline
  • After deadline- go back to finding stories, follow up tips e.g. scan about 50 emails, scan through hundreds of press releases, return phone calls- probably dozens.

Repeat every day.

So when a journalist calls or emails and says hey can you get back to me in 2 hours it is because that is all the time they have to write the article.

“WHAT? But I saw in this movie were this journalist spent weeks hunting down the truth” is what you might be thinking right now. If so, take a breath, think about every portrayal of archaeology in the movies or on TV. Done, good. Do you fight Nazis? Do you blow stuff up? Do you hunt for treasure? No, so why do you think movies and TV suddenly get it right when it comes to journalists?

Moving on, here are some other things you need to know about journalists:

  • They cover CATEGORIES not topics. So the person who may be covering archaeology, unless it is an archaeology only publication, will probably be covering a large category like science or science AND Tech. Are you an expert in another field? Do you know that a killer whale is actually a dolphin?  Do you know how to read JAVA code for computers?  A journalist will be covering a wide range of topics and can not know everything about everything.
  • Journalists can change where they work. 5 yrs working crime, well now your our cultural writer.
  • Fact checking- DOES NOT HAPPEN. Actually, it happens but not for your kind of articles. The big magazines (who has a week to write a story) and newspapers with investigative journalists (New York Times type) with fact check their stories. However, they do not fact check stories that will not be on the front page or close to the front page. At best a journalist will google or wiki the best way to spell something, maybe see what the first website says about a topic. Why? Because they do not have enough time. Could you write and fact check an article in 30 mins?
  • JOB CONDITIONS ARE WORSE THAN ARCHAEOLOGY- More people want jobs, that are dissipating fast, than in archaeology. When you pitch 5 stories and get 5 stories picked up that is a good thing. It means you still have a job. Imagine how long you would survive if you only pitch one story every day and only got picked up once a week?
  • Once a story is pitched and not picked up it’s dead. Once a story is published it’s dead. The first to publish usually gets the lions share of views. This means that if you are not the first most newspapers will not touch it again. By default they assume most stories come from press releases so that if they pass on it someone else will pick it up. This means after a pitch is made it’s either picked up or dropped. So you have to have 5 NEW stories each and every day.
  • It bleeds, it leads- simple newspapers are selling newspapers to people. journalists are selling their stories to newspapers. People want to see blood, best of, never before discovered, etc. etc. Journalists have to pitch stories that will get published.

In other words when a journalist sends you an email saying:]

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,
Journalist

Take pity on them. They probably just pitched the story 20 mins. ago and now have 3 hours to write the story. They may also have several other stories to write.  Moreover, they may know nothing about the topic and they are stuck with whatever story they have pitched. You could lecture them about why their story is wrong but it is already too later for that. You may feel they are looking for a quote and they are but that is because that is what they need to finish the pretty much already written article (they are not waiting two hours for you to get back to them before they start to write if their deadline is in 2.5 hrs).

This is why stories get mangled: tight time frames, not experts, multiple stories need to be written, headline already made before investigation, no fact checking, horrible work conditions, etc. It is not that they want to write missleading or wrong articles, it is just there are a lot of factors against good articles appearing in the newspaper.

Fear not, in the next post I will explain how to get good journalists articles. hint- don’t wait for them to pitch the story and be forced to follow their slant.

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