Reviewed by: General Anthropology Division
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Labor
Secondary Theme: Borders
Journalists and anthropologists working across the subdisciplines depend on careful analysis translated to the written word in order to accurately describe our world and help others make sense of it. Yet, the practices, commitments, traditions, and worldviews of each of the two fields shape different forms of communication. A Scientific American feature is radically different from a Current Anthropology article. Where do these disciplines intersect and how do they diverge? This roundtable will stage a dialogue between science journalists, investigative reporters, international correspondents and anthropologists who write for the general public and whose research has been widely covered in the press.
Participants will address a series of key topics, such as:
1. Transparency versus anonymity. The general practice in cultural anthropology is to protect the privacy of our local consultants. Institutional mechanisms in academia often even require anonymity as part of the ethical treatment of human subjects. By contrast, the general practice in journalism is to name sources in all but a limited set of cases. How do practitioners in both fields think about their ethical obligations to the people they work with? What tensions arise around questions of anonymity when journalists seek to cover stories in situations where anthropologists have worked? And how do anthropologists who want their research shared in the public sphere provide needed details while protecting the rights of their community sources?
2. Balance versus justice. Journalists find themselves under pressure to present both sides of a story. Anthropologists may think of balance differently: the point of much anthropological work is to showcase perspectives that otherwise might go unnoticed. What kinds of tensions of “balance” arise when journalists cover anthropological topics? What role do anthropologists find themselves playing when they conduct research on issues that have received extensive attention from the press?
3. Spin versus situated knowledge. How do journalists and anthropologists contend with the fact that those they draw on for information have particular kinds of stories they wish to tell? What ethical considerations arise when journalists and anthropologists offer accounts of the lived experiences of nonhuman animals who cannot participate in verbal encounters with the story-tellers? What counts as objectivity in journalistic and anthropological writing? How do journalists and anthropologists identify what should count as a “fact”?
4. Simplicity versus complexity. The lesson behind much anthropological work is arguably this: “it’s complicated.” Journalists, on the other hand, often work to condense a story to a single, memorable message. What kinds of tensions arise when journalists cover anthropological work that stresses the complex and contingent nature of the factors that shape a phenomenon, or when anthropologists convey their own work and the work of other anthropologists to a wide public used to reading accounts from journalists
By fostering greater understanding of what anthropology and journalism have in common, and how they differ in their approach, the roundtable will explore ways practitioners can work together more effectively.