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The Bedfellows are Less Strange These Days: The Changing Relationship Between Archaeologists and the Media

David Pendergast

"It doesn't matter what they say about you, as long as they spell your name right" is one of the maxims of the film industry, but its message was never true; ask Fatty Arbuckle. The trouble is that, in times past, many archaeologists seemed to have accepted Hollywood's viewpoint unquestionably. For a long time, we generally acted as if we were beholden to the media, and as if a reporter were doing us a great favor in noticing our insignificant endeavors, let alone gracing us with a few questions and possibly giving a column inch of coverage. But times, thankfully, have changed.


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It has always been true that reporters have reaped considerable benefit from archaeological work--they are constantly in need of news and we have provided reams of it over the past century. Until recently, however, it has been equally true that a reporter who found our news insufficient as an attention-grabber felt no compunctions about "giving the piece a focus," usually one that we would have avoided at all cost. It is from the belief that major field discoveries and striking new insights into the past weren't newsworthy enough in themselves that such perdurable plagues as "The Curse of King Tut's Tomb" were born, and unfortunately, neither this nor the other curses of the "hot item" approach to the news is likely to disappear in the foreseeable future.

Adventures with Reporters

The headache-inducing headline "Mayas Liked their Women Cross-eyed," glared from the newspaper pages after my first press conference on excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, because of my response to a reporter's question about the use of a string of beads to produce crossed eyes. That line became the "focus" for a piece on the season's discoveries. The only comfort I could draw was that a few of the reporters spelled my name correctly.

Today's reporters, armed with a broader knowledge of the world and its myriad issues than their predecessors, often come to an interview with equally good or better questions than emanate from the average undergraduate student. They also come with the perception that their work in concert with us is not about stimulating research funding, but rather about stimulating fact-based interest. In today's world, a spectacular discovery still gets broad news coverage, but so do issues. Looting, complicity of academics in shady art world transactions, native peoples' views of archaeological work, and a host of other non-discovery matters also receive regular exposure in newspapers and magazines, and frequently, on radio, television, and the Internet as well.

Today's media coverage of archaeology is notable for its variety, which is nothing more than a product of the proliferation of media sources. Where there are more outlets, there is a greater need for "different" news items to keep more reporters busy, and a greater likelihood of wide coverage. Yet even with the proliferation of communication avenues, the places in which archaeonews appears often are surprising.

Witness the archaeological reportage in a recent issue of Antiques and the Arts Weekly, a 200+-page newspaper in Newtown, Connecticut, packed with information on antique shows and estate auctions. Amid the typical pieces on auction results and antique-show successes appears a report about an anthropology professor convicted for excavating without a permit, with a commentary by a local native spokesperson. Hardly the stuff to interest antique collectors and dealers, but the incident received almost 16 column inches of coverage. The lesson here is double-edged: With wider coverage, the public will know more about archaeologists' work than ever before, but not all of what they "know" will be good.

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The Impact of Television

The cause of the more positive side of today's coverage--its greater accuracy and improved intellectual quality--can be found in the increased hunger for knowledge, fed by television. In a medium dominated by drivel (see Jeff MacGregor's "What's Wrong With TV? Just Do The Math" in the August 9, 1998, New York Times for a piercing analysis of the problem), coverage of world cultures, ancient and modern, stands out as a real contribution to the interested public.

Obviously, the old derring-do programming with its fake slashing through the jungle that reveals fully restored ancient temples surrounded by manicured grass has not yet disappeared, but the viewing population is a more critical one, with an increased ability to recognize the fakery. Television series, particularly those of the past 25 years enlisting real-life archaeologists, may not have measurably increased our funding but they have created an informed public, instructed in what we know, how we acquired the knowledge, and why the augmentation of such information and the protection of the sites that are its source are so important to all of us.

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Benefits of Wider Coverage

Is the picture of today's archaeology-media relationship entirely rosy, then? Are we linked arm-in-arm with reporters in a crusade against the forces of darkness? Of course not. It is still incumbent on all of us to take care in how we present our work and its results to the media. We will still encounter the occasional obtuse or obstinate questioners, but the overall condition in which we operate has undeniably been greatly improved. One visible outcome is SAA's annual Gene Stuart Award, that recognizes outstanding media cooperation with archaeology.

The message is clear: The reporting of archaeology has attained a level of quality far beyond our starry-eyed dreams of a few decades ago. Whether the locale is Belize or Bangkok, Lima or London, our voice is being transmitted by the media with ever greater force and clarity. Archaeologists are now sought not only for the latest splashy news item, but also for our solid experience on issues and areas that have international impact. As we savor the change, our version of the Hollywood maxim should be, "It matters a great deal what they say about your work, even if they don't spell your name right."

David Pendergast, chair of SAA's Public Relations Committee, is vice president of Collections and Research at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

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