What Makes a Good News Story and Why Can’t Archaeologists Make Them- Archaeology and the Press Part 3

Posted on August 20, 2014

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‘The Oldest Mummy’,  ‘Revolutionizing What We Though About the History of Toothpicks’, ‘The Largest Mesolithic House Found in Scotland- next to a street – between two houses – in the last 3 months’. We have all seen those news stories. In some cases they peaked out interest. In others, we kind of think, ‘….um, why exactly did I just read that’. While there are some great articles out there, in most news outlets we see a steady stream of ‘oldest’, ‘change history’, and ‘treasure’. Keith (check out his amazing blog, Bad Archaeology) wrote this comment on one of my posts and it hits the problem on the head-

“One issue is the way we as archaeologists write press releases. In our genuine excitement at what we have discovered, we tend to over-use hyperbole (“the earliest”, “the largest”, “the most important”, “will revolutionise our knowledge”). We’ve all done it. We need something that will grab the journalist’s attention, not the sort of summary text that puts even other archaeologists off reading the remainder of a bit of grey literature (“Seven trial trenches failed to find evidence of Mesolithic occupation, although some later post-medieval pottery was recovered from the topsoil”).”

So lets take a look at what makes a good news story and how archaeologists can be better than relying on the clichés.

What is News?

This is the dirty little secret of news organizations- they are not in the business of delivering news, righting wrongs, uncovering scandals, etc. The vast majority of news organizations are in the advertisement business, just like Google. They want you to see advertisements and to get paid for hosting advertisements. They do that by getting people to read articles, watch their channel, visit their website, etc. in search of certain types of information.

Taking that business model into account, here are the five classic categories taught to journalists that draw people to the news: timing, significance, proximity, prominence, human interest. Any good news story needs to have one of these factors, that is what every journalist is taught in school and it works. Remember journalists are professionals and they know what attracts readers, they have been doing this for several hundred years. So what exactly are these attributes?

Significance

Completely arbitrary depending on your audience but in archaeology it usually turns into the oldest, the largest, gold, etc. Basically, why it is important to a large audience. Journalists are too busy to research on their own so they rely on tips or press releases sent by archaeologists or their organizations e.g. University, construction company, etc. This hurts us in two ways:

  1. Archaeologists are not trained to write press releases so we default to what we see in the news currently- gold, oldest, treasure i.e. significance.
  2. Archaeologists are trained to report on significant finds for academic papers. Think about how many journals only publish ‘significant’ results. We have grey literature and we have journal quality literature.

Are we really surprised that it seems like all news articles, with notable exceptions (Past Horizons mixes it up), are all about how significant these results are? Even if the results aren’t really that significant? If all we do is talk about ‘significance’ then we are only going to see stories about gay cavemen and treasure.

Why Do You Want to be in the News?

Before going further ask yourself, why be in the news? Ego? Raise awareness for your community dig? PR for your employer? There are many great reasons to be in the news but rarely do they have to do with the significance of your work. In CRM or Academia there are very few direct rewards for being in the news for the significance of your work. It won’t get you tenure. You are employed to dig not to write news articles in CRM. Usually, you are doing it for PR or to get people to come to your museum or community dig. Which actually means you really don’t care how you get in the new, as long as it is for good reasons. ‘Any press is good press’ does not count in archaeology. So when you are approached by the press or are considering approaching them think of these four other ways to pitch the story:

Timing

This can mean several things. Is it new? People want the most up to date facts, the most recent sports scores, etc. Is it related to a particular event? Here is the perfect example of a well timed press release- Antony and Cleopatra: coin find changes the faces of history. It is about a coin with Antony and Cleopatra on it … boring! Except of course to myself and a few numismatist. However, it was announced  around Valentines day. Two of history’s famous lovers and Valentines Day, the story practically writes itself… and did in hundreds of news outlets around the world. The Great North Museum knew about the coin for months but released it at the perfect time.

There is a course a fine line between Irish Archaeology is amazing and another crap are Leprechauns real and St. Patty’s day story. Also, thing about your Public Archaeology. We always wait until after the dig to announce any finds. But consider doing it during your dig. You can show what has been found to date. Fresh news is good news.

Proximity

Events close to us are more important. The Onion, a fake/satirical newspaper and now website, once said, ‘In other news the equivalent of 3 Americans died in an Earthquake today in (a country that was not America)’. Not to everyone’s taste in humor but one that does capture the truth about the news, local matters. Yes, everyone wants to get into the national news but there are many local and regional news outlets that are always desperate for stories. Digging in a local community is usually important enough to get you into the local news. Seriously, check out your local news outlets.

Prominence

Famous people get more coverage because they are famous. Why do we care what Bradley Cooper thinks about Obama? No really, why? It makes not sense to me but it attracts people. It even works in heritage – Obama Tours Jordan Archaeological Site at End of Mideast Trip

If you invite someone famous to see your work people will write about it. If you have a TV archaeologist talk about something people will put it in the news. Also, famous is a relative thing, a legislator visiting an archaeological site can make the news. Time Team, Harrison Ford is a Member of the AIA, we actually have a ton of ‘celebrity’ archaeologists or ‘celebrities’ interested in archaeology that we don’t seem to use.

Human Interest

Simple, we like to hear stories about real people. Talk to people with blogs or websites, some of the highest viewed articles are human interest pieces. We are all well placed to take advantage of this catagory; Archaeologists are some of the most colorful bunch of people I have ever met. Smuggled guns to Iraq and whiskey to Jordon, yes I know that archaeologist. Was a professional circus performer, I know that archaeologist too. I will repeat that again, people love stories about people.

It does not have to be about archaeologists either. Volunteers, kids, geriatrics, all stories that local news outlets love, love, love. Mainly because people buy papers or watch the news when they are on it. They also tell all their friends. In the local news market that is huge. If your goal is to raise awareness about your work than people are some of the best hooks.

Go Forth and Make News

That’s it, five paths to getting into the news. If you want to break out of the hamster wheel of ‘archaeology news’ consider the breadth of choices you have. Also, consider your outlets. Significance and Prominence tend to make national/international news. Human Interest and Proximity tend to be more local, while timing can be either. I will talk more about targeting your work in my next post.

Archaeology and the Press

This is the third part of a several-part blogging series I am doing, Archaeology and the Press. The first post talked about the process of making an article. The second post, gave tips on interviewing.In the forth post I show you how to turn these story hooks in to articles.

 

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