Journalists are much like archaeologists, wielding pens, tape recorders, and video cameras rather than trowels, brushes, and transits. Like archaeologists, journalists are used to digging to get the data that they need to find the "real story." They are curious, enjoy research, and can be very persistent. Journalists work on a much shorter time scale than archaeologists. They don't get months or years to write up their reports.
They may get an assignment from their editor--"Somebody dug up an old Indian site and we need a story on it for tomorrow's paper"--and have just two or three hours--or less--to research the story, interview two or three people, and write it up.
Journalists usually aren't writing, recording, or videotaping for the ages but for the moment. That doesn't, however, mean that what they publish or broadcast is not important. Newspaper articles and radio and television reports can have a tremendous immediate impact.
Because people are curious about their past and because archaeological research often unearths controversy along with artifacts, archaeology is news. The question for archaeologists is no longer "Do I want news coverage?" or "How do I avoid news coverage?" Instead, it's "What kind of coverage am I going to get and how can I exercise the most control over the coverage so that the scientific story is told?"
Following are several suggestions for working with journalists to help tell that story most effectively.
If you don't tell your story, somebody else will. Sometimes it may be appropriate not to comment about a particular site or archaeological issue. However, remember that if the issue is controversial or generates a lot of local interest, the journalist who contacted you will continue to contact other people until she gets some information. She may be more intrigued precisely because you declined to comment.
What's the news? What's the point? Think about how your archaeological research could affect people today. Think about its context, the big picture. Does it offer insight into how individual and family relationships functioned in the past? Does it provide information about land-use patterns that are relevant to land-use issues today? Why are you doing this research, anyway? What excites you about it?
Be prepared. Don't let yourself be ambushed. If a journalist calls you unexpectedly, and you're not prepared for off-the-cuff comments, ask if you can return the call in a few minutes. This usually isn't a problem for the journalist, even if the story is due that day. Think about what you want to say, and talk in plain language. Use as little jargon as possible and don't assume that the journalist knows archaeological terms. Use dates sparingly, because the more dates you use the higher the probability that they can be misunderstood or turned around.
Know the ground rules. Be astute. Once a journalist has identified himself or herself as a reporter, anything you say is "on the record" unless other ground rules have been set before the interview begins. It is perfectly ethical for a journalist to quote anything you say once the interview has begun.
In general, it's not a good idea to ask the journalist if you can look over the story before it's published or broadcast. If you do this, you are essentially telling the journalist "I don't trust you to get the story straight." In addition, you are probably asking the journalist to violate the policies of his news organization. Most newspapers, for example, do not allow the subjects of stories to look over these stories before they are published. The newspaper, not the person being interviewed, has the editorial control over the content of the stories.
The role of journalists and editors is to talk to several people who may have different opinions, or expertise, to get to the crux of the story, and to present all sides of the story as fairly as possible. In a way, they are like cultural anthropologists, observing how people act within a particular culture and then exercising their judgment as to what is important.
Humanize the data. People like to read or hear about other people. Too often, archaeologists talk as if the artifacts and sites, rather than the people who made them, are ends in themselves.
Understand the inherent limitations of the specific media used, whether it is print, radio, or television.
Deadlines are crucial--and different--for all media. If you initiate a call and a journalist tells you he can't talk to you now because he's on deadline, believe him. If you deal with the same journalist or news organization repeatedly, find out what their deadlines are. It's also a good idea to know when slow news days occur, because journalists are likely to be more receptive to story ideas then.
Television needs pictures to tell the news and usually a story must be told between 30 seconds and two to three minutes; newspapers and magazines may be better at telling a more complex version of the story. Radio talk shows can offer archaeologists a way to present their ideas to a large audience and respond to questions from that audience.
Develop productive relationships with local journalists. The best way to a journalist's heart is to be a reliable resource. If a journalist calls you with a question that you can't answer, refer her to someone else who can answer it. Be willing to explain archaeological concepts or talk about archaeological issues, even if the discussions don't result in a story. If you do this, she will be more likely to listen to you the next time you have a story idea to pitch to her. Decline to comment if you must, but never mislead or lie to journalists.
Let journalists know what you think about their stories. Most journalists welcome feedback but resent attack. If there are gross errors of fact in a story or you don't think it's fair, please let the journalist know that. Don't be abusive or launch personal attacks. Be specific in your criticism.
Most newspapers now routinely publish corrections. If you think a correction to a story is warranted, tell the journalist that. If he doesn't agree that a correction is needed, ask to speak to the editor or managing editor. Usually editors decide whether a correction is warranted. If you think a story was done well, let the journalist know that, too.
Respect journalists and what they do. Just as it takes more than someone armed with a trowel to be an archaeologist, it takes more than someone with a pen or tape recorder to be a journalist. Every day, journalists have to sort through contradictory information and compose a story that makes sense, usually in a very short period of time. If they make mistakes, those mistakes are out there for thousands of people to see, hear, or read.
Anntoinette "Toni" Moore covers medicine and science for the Longview News-Journal in Longview, Tex. She has served as the press officer at the Society for American Archaeology's annual meetings since 1993.