Adventures with journalists; or, I never said anything about 45,000 yr. old Eskimos

Obviously, I think that archaeology is interesting. In my experience, so do most non-archaeologists I meet. People ask lots of questions, and it’s amazing how many of them say they always wanted to be archaeologists (hey, we take volunteers!).

So, I imagine that there’s a reasonable audience for journalism (print, broadcast or Web) that covers it. The Arctic, as the canary in the climatic coal mine and home to endangered charismatic megafauna (AKA polar bears), also seems to be a hot journalistic topic. Given that Barrow is served by at least two jet flights a day and has decent connectivity, we get our fair share of journalists, and a fair number of them want to talk to me.

The public pays for most archaeology (and other science) so I think they deserve to hear what they’re paying for us to learn, especially since most people are interested in other people and their doings, as opposed to, say, permafrost or midge hatches, for which the interested audience may be smaller. So I take the time to talk to journalists. I also try to find out a bit about the journalist in question. If I get the sense that they are not very experienced with science or research, I’ll offer to at least check dates and spellings in their story before it goes to print, pointing out that that’s less embarrassing than having to issue corrections of errors later. Some take me up; some don’t.

I also take the time to attend panels on working with the media at scientific meetings. They are usually composed of a variety of people who are public information officers for scientific organizations or institutions and science journalists, often quite well-known ones who write for national science magazines or newspapers. They are all very earnest and full of good advice. They are usually amazed at the questions asked by the audience, and horrified by those of us who want to see stories prior to publication. They seem bewildered that the archaeologists making up the audience don’t all see journalists as friends and a great help.

Of course, if all journalists were like the ones on the panels, we probably would see them that way. I’ve worked with some great folks. Angelika Franz, a German writer who has done several pieces about Nuvuk, actually has a doctorate in archaeology, so she’s been great to work with, knowing what sorts of information are critical to get right, and understanding technical terms so we can concentrate on the interesting parts of the story. She has done pieces for Spiegel Online Wissenschaft, a magazine called Epoc and now she’s got a book coming out with a number of pieces she’s done.

I had great fun being interviewed (in Danish) by some Danish journalists who were retracing Knud Rasmussen’s travels across Arctic America. The story wound up mostly being about the fact that I have a complete set of the 5th Thule Report, in Barrow. We also had a nice trip to Nuvuk in the local tour van, which resulted in some good polar bear pictures for them.

Most of the others have been reasonably competent, and haven’t garbled the stories too much, although they haven’t written stories that answer the sorts of questions people ask me.

And then there are the others. There was a group of filmmakers working on video for a major producer of science programming. They had decided to focus on an ice scientist and his (cute female) grad student. It was spring, so there was not much to see at Nuvuk, but they wanted to go there anyway. They wanted to film them pulling up on snow machines. The tracks aren’t the best thing for the site, but we had already excavated the area near the bluffs, so I said that would be OK there. Of course, they didn’t like the shot, or the light, and wanted to have them coming from a different angle, and retake it, and I kept having to tell them to stay in the cleared area. Then they decided that the scientists/protagonists should start scraping away gravel from logs (actually a NARL-era sled shed base) projecting from the bluff, with their mittens. Since this is precisely what we want the public to avoid, it didn’t’ seem like a good idea to show them SCIENTISTS doing it on a reputable science TV series. I pointed that out, to no avail. So I told them I couldn’t be party to that, on film or off, and since they seemed bent on damaging the site, which belonged to my employer, I was going to have to ask them to leave.

Better yet was a Barrow reporter for the local newspaper, the Arctic Sounder. The Sounder is not a bad paper given the area it covers and the budget it has. However, I doubt that the editor considers this fellow one of his better hires. He was an odd duck. He once asked me to help him set up the Mac that the paper had given him so that he could file electronically. I got everything set up, and then went to plug the modem into the phone line (this was some years ago). He would not let me. I suggested that we could test it, and then he could plug it in to file and unplug it. No dice. He also thought there was a hole at the North Pole. He interviewed me about some work I had been doing, and in the course of the interview asked me how long people had been in the Barrow area. I said it was hard to be sure, since sea levels had risen and between that and erosion the earliest evidence was probably gone, but that there was some Arctic Small Tool Tradition (ASTt) material there, which was probably “4 to 5 thousand years old”.

Imagine my surprise at being quoted (in quotation marks, no less) as having said that there were “45,000-year-old Eskimos” in the Barrow area! I got calls from folks as far away as Pennsylvania (Tiger Burch for one) who basically wanted to know if I was off my rocker. When I suggested to the reporter that perhaps a correction was in order, he refused on the grounds that “someday they’ll find 45,000-year-old sites here, and then you’ll have been the first to say it in print.” I have heard, although I can’t confirm, that he was removed from town in a straitjacket.

And they wonder why archaeologists view journalists with a somewhat jaundiced eye…

2 thoughts on “Adventures with journalists; or, I never said anything about 45,000 yr. old Eskimos

  1. Anne,
    Love the story. You are right, I think that everyone is interested in where and how people lived thousands of years ago. I really enjoy the writing style as well.
    Keep up the good work.

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