Editorial

By Stoddart, Simon; Malone, Caroline | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Stoddart, Simon, Malone, Caroline, Antiquity


SIMON STODDART & CAROLINE MALONE

`You must begin to extricate yourself from the media if you are going to exist as a respectable archaeologist' was the advice given to one editor of this journal, GLYN DANIEL, by his fellow academics (Taylor, this issue, p. 471). `In the world today, you have no chance if you keep silent' is the advice of a recent guide to media relations (Macnamara 1995: xv). Glyn Daniel took the advice of the media guide some 40 years ahead of his time. Today there is no longer the same level of disapproval of archaeological exposure to the media. Nevertheless, new tensions have replaced the old in the relationship between the media and archaeology. Archaeology has been remarkably successful since at least the time of Daniel in realizing the importance of publicity, and yet ... archaeologists are ready to complain about certain media tendencies. In the world beyond archaeology, many individuals created by the media have discovered, to their cost, that they can also be negatively affected by the very media that made them. Archaeology has to live in that same media-conscious world. Above all, since many archaeologists are paid indirectly or directly by the state, we have an obligation to convey our knowledge and enthusiasm to the tax-paying public.

All archaeologists have their media stories. Unfairly, we tend to remember the outrages and the mistakes rather than the smooth successes. One of the present editors was treated to a whole column on the local page of a prominent Italian newspaper on how with a `carabinieri-like manoeuvre' he had placed his slow Sherpa van into a parking space ahead of a `giornalist'. The `giornalist' neglected to mention not only that the van was going around the square the right way (in contrast to the car of the `giornalist'), but also neglected to cover the archaeology at the press conference, preferring the immediate copy offered in the square outside, adding his personal view of the local government administration. Admittedly, he may not have parked his car in time for the press conference. Another journalist redistributed all the periods of an Umbrian landscape from the Palaeolithic to the Medieval onto a single hilltop. A respected British newspaper almost caused a diplomatic incident with a headline along the lines of `British Navy rescues Maltese Ancestors' after it was revealed that the present editors had persuaded the Royal Yacht Britannia to carry precious human remains from Malta for study in the United Kingdom. More recently, another distinguished British newspaper preferred to carry an extensive full-colour story on the sponsor of the project rather than the archaeology itself. Finally, a journalist from a serious tabloid (that is, the more serious end of the popular press) was more interested in the fact that Cambridge and Oxford universities were working together than in the aims of the archaeological project. We could relay many successful and accurate examples of coverage of archaeology, but these stories of deviation from the real archaeology, either through simple error or through the sidelining of the archaeological facts in search of a good alternative and usually creative story, remain more prominently in our minds.

At a more general level, the media are keen on a good story (disputes/debates/disagreements) and the tangible value of objects. The story will frequently be enhanced. As BRIAN FAGAN puts it, `We have to understand that journalists are always looking for the BIG story, the next Tutankhamun, and they will often think a story is bigger than it is. This is why the more experienced of them are cautious about exploring new discoveries, for they are well aware that many finds are hyped both by such journals as Nature and Science, which have discovered the value of publicity to sell their journals, and, more importantly, by institutional public relations departments, which are in the business of hyping discoveries to encourage more extramural funding and research grants. …

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