Archaeology and the Press: Part 1- Why does the news get it so, so, so, wrong?

Posted on August 18, 2014


Press and Archaeology

Bad “news” articles are everywhere, but sometimes it seems like they are especially bad in archaeology. Bad articles can range from something as simple as the misspelling of a name to articles about how archaeologists recently discovered dinosaur bones in which the “archaeologists” interviewed are actually an “experts” on UFO sightings. Even the best news sources can get it wrong, here is a line from the Guardian,

The recent archeological finds of a pliosaur skull in Dorset” (for any non-archaeology readers, archaeologists don’t really deal with dinosaurs, too old for us)

This post is going to be a part of a series on the Press and Archaeology. I have been writing a BAJR guide on the topic on and off for several years now and with some recent events I thought it would be good to dust it off and blog about it.

Do your job dammit!

Your first reaction to a bad news piece might be to get mad and scream at a journalist, ‘Do your job dammit. For crying out loud Google would tell you archaeologists don’t dig dinosaurs’. But, once you understand the ‘news process’ it is easy to see why it happens. They are doing their jobs, unfortunately their job suck, at least in my personal opinion. In fact, once you understanding the news process you start to wonder why they don’t get it wrong more often.

Indian Jones is to Archaeology as Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington in the Pelican Brief) is to Journalism

We archaeologists never stop complaining about how we are misrepresented in the movies by Indian Jones or Laura Croft*. Yet, we kind of forget that Journalism in the movies is not the same as in real life. The common perception is to think of all Journalists as Investigative Journalists, un-earthing political scandals and saving the day. There is some truth to this, just like there is some truth to the myth of Indian Jones and Archaeology in the 1930s and 1940s. However, in reality Investigative Journalism is not as exciting as the movies make it out to be AND it makes up a tiny portion of Journalism. Investigative Journalists are also some of the first people laid off and they usually only make up a tiny, but ever shrinking, number of reporters. Also, let’s fact it, those Investigative Journalists left are not spending their time investigating Archaeology.

Most journalists Archaeologists deal with are your more generic news employee who, while doing some investigating, mainly reports the news and does not make the news. They are usually not given the leeway to spend any sort of time on a project but instead shift through mountains of press releases, leads, and tips to crank out stories on a daily basis.

The Meat Grinder

What is the typical day for a reporter? I will take you through the day of a newspaper reported. This is for a morning paper:

  • Each day a reporter will sift through about 100+ press releases and tips of potential stories, “leads”. This is not an exaggeration, 100 + leads are what a reporter will go through in a 24 hour news day, possibly more. Local news organizations might receive fewer leads but in the age of press release websites it will not much fewer than this. This starts the day before, more on that, and begin first thing in the morning.
  • Reporters then narrow down these leads to between 2-5 possible stories which they pitch to their editor who can pick up (publish) all or none. Of course if the reporter does not get their stories “picked up” enough they could be out of a job or if the newspaper does not sell enough papers then they are out of a job too. The news world is a high pressure environment to sell. Remember, a newspaper’s job is not to report news, it is to sell advertisement. This meeting with the editor typically happens early morning, 9 or 10.
  • This is where things get crazy: after a story is picked up by the editor then the reporter has to produce an article, sometimes that day. The time frame for that is between when they meet with their editor (around 9 or 10 in the morning) and the deadline for submission (around 2 or 3 in the afternoon for a next day morning print run). Imagine writing a full article in a few hours? This means getting all the information, quotes, and writing this up, with perfect grammar and spelling, in a matter of minutes or hours for a single story.
  • 2 or 3pm rolls around and the article is sent in for the print deadline. After this, the reporter has very little input. It goes through some editing and the layout for the next day is created. That layout usually has to be done by the evening so it can go to the printers. That means by 5 or 6 no more changes can be made to the paper but in reality no changes could be make to the article after 2 or 3. Meanwhile the reporting spends all of their time between submitting the article(s) and the end of the work day (5pm, please. Try  7pm? 11pm?) looking at press releases and preparing to start the process over maybe at 4:30am the next day.

This is a basic template but it does change from organization to organization. Some larger newspapers give their reporters more time to create and write articles but not much.

5 Years and PhD later you know a lot about very little, reporters know very little about a lot

Reporters are given a beat, that is an area or topic they cover. There are no Archaeology Beats in any news organization that is not solely devoted to archaeology.  At a small local paper you will cover everything local. In that case you might have just wrote an article about the state fair and a local homicide, now it’s on to an article about archaeology. Large news outlets are not much better. At a big newspaper you might have a beat like ‘science’ but that is a very broad topic. How much do you know about comic radiation? How much do you know chemical reactions in dyeing wool? All things you might have to cover in your beat.

Why is It Not Worse

So imagine you have two or three hours to research and write an article on the Russian ballet. Now imagine you have to also do a review of the top selling book on Amazon. Let’s also add in an article on the local history festival because your beat is culture. How would your articles look if you had to write three articles in three hours on three topics you know very little about?

Now write five articles in a day. I wish I was exaggerating but five articles a day, as this confession says, is the average now for some reporters. From that same confession-

‘When a story breaks, you could take a couple hours to do research, call to sources, and write a contextualized, edited piece — but by that time, 5 of your competitors will have posted on the story. You will look slow and readers will have moved onto the next thing. The reality is that original reporting and careful editing fall by the wayside in the desire to be fast.’

The thing is, reporters don’t even have the time to Google- ‘do archaeologists dig dinosaurs?’ There is a reason news reports get it wrong all the time.

Pretty much all the same

There are of courses exceptions to this e.g. New York Times prides itself on quality. But, for the vast majority of news outlets it is quantity.

I focused pretty much on newspapers but websites work the same way. The only problem is that they are 24 hours so there are no deadlines, you are always on. You are less likely to have a formal meeting with an editor and more shooting them an email- I am going to publish this. Magazines tend to use freelancers which is a whole other problem. Also, why newspaper articles are 350 words magazines can be thousands of words long. TV is a bit different in that they like to send camera crews to locations but the same idea holds. Each day you have to find a new story to film. News is a relentless beast that needs to be fed constantly.

It is a beast that has torn up good archaeological work and so not so good fringe stuff and spit it all out as those blobs we know and love called ‘news articles’.

You might be doing the math in your head 5 articles on different subjects you know little about, a few hours deadline, articles have to have quotes- that’s an interview or two, they have to have sources, 350+  words x5, etc. etc. How does it get done? In the next few days I will take you inside the making of a news article and how you, Archaeologists, can make sure your message gets across and is accurate.

Archaeology and the Press

This is the first part of a series of posts on the press and archaeology. Part 2 shows you how interview. Part 3 looks at what makes a good news story. Part 4 shows you how to turn a story into news.


* Someone who has done an amazing job of turning some of the negative aspects of Tomb Raider into a positive is the blog Archaeology of Tomb Raider.  I especially love Kelly’s use of Tomb Raider to highlight real life heritage locations people should visit or learn more about.

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