Improving Archaeological Journalism

Tip o’ the pileus to Kristina Kilgrove, who alerted us to a very interesting post in the Guardian: Nine ways scientists can help improve science journalism.

I reproduce the ‘meat’ article below, but encourage folks to read the original. In what follows, I’ve changed all instances of “science” to “archaeology” and “scientist” to “archaeologist” … and the advice is still really good! Here’s the salient bits:

Ways scientists can improve science archaeological journalism:
1. Watch what you release

In the balance between carefully reporting science archaeology and courting interest, we believe many press releases push the latter too far. We can help journalists by stating limitations and highlighting danger points in interpretation where an untrained eye might confuse correlation with causation, or absolute and relative risks.

Doing so requires us to place public understanding of science archaeology above our own vanity and pressure to achieve impact.
2. Reach out

For us this debate has highlighted the degree of separation between science archaeology and journalism, with neither world understanding in any detail the nature of the other. So let’s get to know each better and destroy the “ivory tower” myth.
3. Be there

How many of us ensure we know exactly when our press release will be made public and make time in our diaries for interviews? The reality is that if we are unavailable in the 48 hours following the press release then the ship may have sailed, or sunk. Science Archaeology may grow like a bristlecone pine but most news stories are mayflies.
4. Be prepared

Media training courses are important, but so is common sense. Key quotes can be prepared in advance of interviews. Advice from non-experts can help recognise and eliminate jargon.
5. Think big

We must accept that accuracy is relative. Scientists Archaeologists already know that their own peer-reviewed articles routinely include what other scientists archaeologists would regard as oversimplifications. Journalists need us to shift our mindset to the perspective of the layperson and question whether a particular detail or caveat is necessary to convey the broader importance of the work. For a vital caveat, be ready to explain clearly why it is part of the big picture.
6. Think blog

Blogs are often regarded as an alternative to PR and commercial media, but they may also be useful as extra resources for journalists. If a journalist doesn’t understand your press release or journal article and can’t get you on the phone, they could refer to your blog for detail and FAQs. As successful blogs show, this bridge can be highly valuable. We’ve tried this with an expanded version of the current article.
7. Make it public

Scientists Archaeologists face unrelenting pressure to publish in the most respected journals, placing much science behind paywalls.

The ethical concerns this raises, especially for publicly funded science archaeology , have been underlined at length (see for example here, here, and here).

We can post our articles on our websites but a coordinated move to open access publishing may require changes in government policy .
8. Watch your neighbourhood

When things go wrong, act. We must take the time to challenge misreporting of our own research and other work in our fields. Many scientists archaeologists are apathetic about misreporting, either laughing it off or resenting it – but then doing nothing about it. Equally important is to challenge pseudoscience or exaggerated claims in our own fields. Bad science archaeology has no better ally than silence from good scientists archaeologists.
9. Get the facts

Argument is no substitute for evidence. Most scientists archaeoloists are not experts in journalism studies, but that shouldn’t stop us from teaming up with the experts and doing research on how our area of science archaeology is represented in the media. We have just embarked on research in our own field to assess the accuracy of press releases and news stories, and the attitudes of scientists toward them. We would encourage more scientists archaeologists to do the same.

We might note in passing that #8 is especially important because the most sensational reports we seem to deal with purposely seem to be inverting the last line (i.e. putting vanity and pressure to achieve impact above (genuine) public understanding of archaeology) …

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