16:32:00, by admin   . Categories: anthropology (general), University / Academia

Why anthropologists should become journalists

We need courses and programs in “Anthropology & Journalism” to help create the critical public intellectuals of the 21st century, Brian McKenna writes in Counterpunch. Such programs will help equip students with skills to popularize critical knowledge:

One thing is certain. We need a new wave of writers and journalists, unafraid to do the most radical thing imaginable: simply describe reality. Their ranks will largely come from freethinkers, dissenting academics and bored mainstream journalists who rediscover what got them interested in anthropology in the first place, telling the truth. Anthropologists have no choice. They must become media makers and journalists themselves.

Many anthropologists look skeptically at journalism. But whenever McKenna hears one of them saying “I never talk to journalists, they always get me wrong. I just can’t trust them", his mind churns, “Then why don’t you become the journalist and write it yourself?”

Anthropologist have lots in common with journalists. They can make great journalists:

What makes a good journalist? In a telling Slate Magazine article, “Can Journalism School Be Saved?” editor Jack Shafer said that “I’d rather hire somebody who wrote a brilliant senior thesis on Chaucer than a J-school M.A. who’s mastered the art of computer-assisted reporting. If you can crack Chaucer, you’ve got a chance at decoding city hall.” (Zenger 2002)

Anthropologists can crack Chaucer and much more. Anthropologists can debate Foucault, survive in foreign lands with little more than the grit of our teeth and write insightful interpretations of the global/local intersections of capital. Anthropologists would make great journalists, albeit if they learned to write more quickly, urgently, succinctly and in a public voice.


Anthropologist James Lett is a former broadcaster and present-day anthropologist. In 1986 he wrote abut his dual life commenting that found it “remarkable that [the] similarities [between the two professions] are not more widely appreciated. As an anthropologist, I have been trained to observe, record, describe, and if possible, to explain human behavior, and that is the essence of what I do every day as a journalist.” (Lett 1986)

McKenna discusses in this article several papers on anthropology and journalism

>> read the article in Counterpunch

His texts reminds me of another texts I wanted to blog about earlier: “Anthro-Journalism” by Randolph Fillmore that is part of the site Communicating Anthropology (lots of advice for better writing). Sybil Amber has collected some links in her post Journalism in Anthropology. One of them leads to the blog Making Anthropology Public

(links updated 20.1.2016)


The Future of Anthropology: “We ought to build our own mass media”

More and more anthropologists, but they’re absent from public debates - “Engaging Anthropology” (1)

“Discuss politics!” - How anthropologists in Indonesia engage with the public

Blogging and Public Anthropology: When free speech costs a career


Comment from: Maximilian C. Forte [Visitor]  
Maximilian C. Forte

I think this is an excellent idea, and really within our grasp. The major hurdles, as far as I see, are organizational ones and those pertaining to startup funds. To think that we could also create new employment opportunities, outside of academia, from within our own ranks, is also quite exciting – at least it would our reproduction, and the generation of new grad students, some sense of purpose beyond the hope for ever more elusive tenure-track positions.

2009-03-12 @ 11:48
Comment from: Red [Visitor]  

Yes. Anthropologits make brilliant journalists. As much as I advocate the knowledge transfer of Anthropologists in modern media, being involved in radio journalism myself I need to divert attention to some pitfalls. Apart from the fact that McKenna is right in the observation that our abilities are often not appreciated, there are few job opportunities, or to put it better: one fights along a very large pool of equally eager freelance colleagues. At present there are more unemployed journalists than in previous years - the compromise is becoming a two-timer, to work as a scientist and publish for press or other media when the opportunity comes up.

2009-03-13 @ 02:02
Comment from: Sara [Visitor]  

Nice post Lorenz and thanks for the links. They are very useful. Actually, I do agree that anthropologists can be a good addition to the field of journalism yet I do believe that many do not have the skills needed to do so, such as writing and responding or reporting quickly to a certain issue. Anthropologists are learning in their universities to write papers, researches, reviews in a longer time comparing to writing a journalistic piece. So, writing quickly is a challenge especially that anthropologists are, as I observed, research their topic carefully and critically which consume time. And, as for those who are interested to engage in this field they do not have many choice except developing such skills individually (self educating) as there are no courses tackle the issue of anthropologists as a journalists. In my case, I brought some books about journalism, such as Journalism A Career Handbook by Anna Mckane in order to develop some of the journalistic skills. In addition, anthropology blogs function as tool that give a great chance to enhance and develop such experience. And, I do agree that it opens a new channel for opening new employment opportunities for the new generation outside the Academic world as Max said.

2009-03-15 @ 03:31
Comment from: [Member]

@Sara, Yes, you’re right. Many anthropoogists lack the skills. I think that’s why Brian McKenna suggests courses in Anthropology and Journalism. Your method is a good alternative such courses. There is actually not sooo much to learn. Journalistic writing isn’t something you have to study in the same way as anthropology. You can learn most of the important things on your own.

@Max: Concerning organisational hurdel and start up funds, why not collaborate with journalism institutes. At the University of Basel in Switzerland I visited several courses in journalistic writing, those courses were open and free for all students.

@Red: Yes, that’s also one of my problems. Especially now. Media are getting more and more commercialised. But there are other trends as well. Here in Norway, people are getting more and more interested in the rather small number of quality newspapers while the commercial tabloid press is losing their readership. So there is hope! And why not starting your own magazine?

2009-03-15 @ 13:37
Comment from: josep [Visitor]  

i think the idea is not quite well focused. An anthropologist is not a journalist and viceversa. I studied journalism, but don’t practice. i have been always interested in anthropology but didn’t study it. If anthropologists think journalism gives more chances for jobs, in the end, they won’t be either a journalist or an anthropogist. Sure, there are ground for collaboration, but you are thinking to a kind of journalism that seems not to exist nowadays. Interestingly, there are no serious studies about journalism as an anthropology subject. If you engaged in it, please tell me, I have been looking for it for some years and i would be very glad to know about results.

2009-03-22 @ 23:12
Comment from: Dani [Visitor]  

I actually am getting my degrees in anthropology and journalism for that very reason. Good to know someone out there backs me up!

2009-03-29 @ 04:18
Comment from: Cat [Visitor]  

Thank you for posting this very timely and thought-provoking article. The lack of anthropologists in the public sphere has been a major source of frustration to me since I was an undergraduate. While I am very much in favor of anthropologists doing journalistic work, I do wonder, however, about the question of where each discipline’s responsibilities lie.

Most anthropologists would agree that our first responsibility is to our collaborators and participants (aka, “informants"), whereas journalists are responsible to the public (i.e., media as the “4th Estate” of a functioning democracy). For example, journalists may ethically employ “undercover” techniques to acquire information, but most anthropologists would feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea. Journalists can justify deceiving their informants because their responsbility is to their reader/viewership, while anthropologists cannot really defend deceiving an informant because it would be a betrayal of the informant’s trust. - Not to mention the (often ridiculous) standards and limitations imposed on anthropologists by Human Subjects Review Boards. Even the issue of “informed consent” is a hurdle over which all anthropologists must jump, whereas journalists have much more free reign over what (and whom) they cover.

There are, of course, many, many cases where the ethical standards of journalists and anthropologists are completely in sync, but until we hash out this and other ethical questions, I think that anthropologists will continue to be uncomfortable with being associated with journalism.

2009-03-30 @ 00:19
Comment from: mcgooley [Visitor]  

Not sure if anthropology and journalism are as distinct on the issue of responsibility as described here.

“…anthropologists would agree that our first responsibility is to our collaborators and participants (aka, “informants”), whereas journalists are responsible to the public (i.e., media as the “4th Estate” of a functioning democracy).”

That sounds like anthropology is advocacy and journalism isn’t. Good anthropology acts in the name of truth as does good journalism. In seeking truth, someone can get hurt. But they win in the end.

2009-04-04 @ 09:41
Comment from: Max Martin [Visitor]  
Max Martin

I think it is an interesting idea. I am a journalist who did a masters in forced migration with a focus on social anthropology mid-career. While I find a lot of common areas of interest and practice, I find lateral entry or even sharing often difficult. I think media houses should invite anthropoligists for assignments and for short or long stints. Similarly journalists, I think will be happy to take time off on an anthropoligical project. Both groups can share notes - about deadlines, spending quality time, respecting the subjects and commercial pressures of the ‘real’ world.

2009-04-23 @ 06:59
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks a lot for many good points. This seems to be a topic that engages more than I thought. I’ll keep an eye on it

2009-04-25 @ 01:35
Comment from: urban [Visitor]

Unfortunately, too many anthropologists are writing in a language that is increasingly laden with jargon. Your average thesis/journal article is hardly compelling: often, the language seems deliberately obscure. A good question to ask: would our work be intelligible/interesting to those whom we write about? A glance at your average journal article should provide the answer. So long as anths. remain afraid of language, as a sort of post-modern hangover, we’ll never have the chops to tell our stories well. I’m pleasantly surprised to see ‘anthropology’ and ‘truth’ appear in the same sentence in these comments; thought it was officially a dirty word in the social sciences. This goes a long way towards explaining the failure of many to cross-over: journalists are masters of the vernacular, anthropologists distrust it. But it’s the language in which most people think, read and enjoy their stories.

2009-08-01 @ 23:54
Comment from: Alana [Visitor]  

Im actually a Anthropology Journalism double major. I think I may have fallen into the best double major I could have. Both really are great for each other and it makes sense to study them together.

2015-09-02 @ 22:00
Comment from: [Member]

Great, good to hear, sounds perfect!

2015-09-22 @ 11:52

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