Why anthropologists should study news media
Bad News. Photo: Stitch, flickr
The time is right for more anthropologists to engage with news media - with their creation, reception and content, writes S Elizabeth Bird in the recent issue of Anthropology News that was published today.
Anthropological engagement with media was long rare and discouraged - and in some quarters still is, Bird criticizes. The main focus has in her view been on topics like the role of television in family life, or the maintenance of diaspora connections through digital media but not on news production or reception.
This neglect is according to her important because “news is the one popular genre that claims to describe reality for the public". Most of what people know about the world is mediated in one way or another:
Throughout the world, people argue, fight and die for stories in which they believe. So it is important to dissect and interpret them: the use of language, the choice of words, the images, the entire frame of the news coverage.
She suggests following research questions:
- Which stories are being told and which are not?
- Whose stories are being told, whose are not, and why?
- How do journalistic routines and values vary across cultural contexts, and how does that produce different kinds of news?
- How does the choice of images take the story in one direction or another?
- How does the story then become part of the common-sense reality in specific cultural contexts?
High profile issues like war, she continues, illustrate these questions dramatically:
We all know, for instance, that the story of the Iraq war is deeply contested. If we have a lot of time, we can scour the Internet, sift through multiple accounts, and reach a conclusion. Most people have neither the time nor the resources to do that; they have little choice but to attend to the stories that predominate.
If we understand better how journalism works, she concludes, not only will we better understand our mediated global cultures, but we will also become more adept at working with journalists to tell anthropology’s stories more effectively.
I have to admit I’m a bit surprised about her analysis. Is the study of news really so much neglected? But that’s maybe because I tend to read more anthropology blogs than journals? It’s in blogs this kind of media anthropology is happening?
There are six more articles on anthropology and journalism online, among others Reviewing Books in Popular Media Anthropologists as Authors and Critics by Barbara J King.
“Merging book reviewing with journalism", she writes, “opens up a space in which we may fling our fierce book-engagement out into the wider world, and see what comes back to us:
When reviewing, the single greatest joy for me is the oppor- tunity to showcase our colleagues’ brilliance. I look for books that bring alive people’s patterns of meaning-making as they flourish and struggle in their daily lives, books that make us see with new eyes behaviors familiar and strange to our own society or at times even to our own species.
There have been many debates on the similarities of anthropology and journalism in the blogosphere, both here on antropologi.info and on Savage Minds (see Why is there no Anthropology Journalism? and Anthropology Journalism HOWTO)
In Divergent Temporalities. On the Division of Labor between Journalism and Anthropology, Dominic Boyer shares some interesting observations about the borders between anthropology and journalism that seem to overlap more and more.
The contemporary market and labor conditions pressure anthropologists to adopt faster modes of research and writing than ever before:
Even doctoral candidates report feeling enormous pressure to publish their research findings well in advance of receiving their PhDs. Not unlike the desk journalists of old, we find ourselves increasingly concerned with “getting the story” (Peterson in Anthropological Quarterly 74), that is, with chasing the next publication opportunity to keep up with market expectations and the demands of institutional audit cultures.
A good example of an anthropology of news can be found in the february issue of Anthropology Today (free access!!). In Heart of darkness reinvented? A tale of ex-soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sindre Bangstad and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen analyze Norwegian media’s representation of Congo.