Re: Rensberger and anthro (was industry finger)

Gina Maranto (gmaranto@WORLDNET.ATT.NET)
Tue, 22 Oct 1996 16:35:01 +0000

As a long-time science writer, I felt I needed to weigh in here.
Re: Boyce Rensberger's comments about his reluctance to use
anthropologists as sources, I can't imagine that Rensberger was
being insincere, as Martin Cohen suggests. Why not approach him
and ask him to clarify his thoughts on the matter for the list?
Otherwise, the discussion is just empty conjecture.

As for myself, I can't say that I have known any science
journalist (aside, apparently, from Rensberger) who actively would
exclude anthropologists as possible sources. In fact, for my recently
published book, *Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human
Beings* (a critique of new reproductive technologies in light of eugenics
through the ages), I consulted a number of anthropologists,
including Gabriele Macho, Alan Walker, Randall White, Mary Ursala
Brennan, Dave Rindos, and Sarah Meltzoff--and they and Hugh Jarvis
and Anthro-l I happily cite in the acknowledgments. Moreover, several
chapters are built on the work of anthropologists, from Vallois and
Birdsell to Blumenbach and Ashley Montagu. If anthropology receives
insufficient coverage (from the point-of-view of anthropologists) I daresay
it has less to do with some inherent bias against anthropologists on the
part of journalists and more to do with editors' notions of what kinds of
stories "sell"--that is not just generate newwstand sales, but also generate
additional media attention, or fit well with an overall editorial outlook.
It goes without saying (though I'll say it anyway) that magazines and newspaper
science sections, like university departments, have their own distinct
characters; just as academic departments can be shaped by the interests of
certain faculty, so that we can speak of various "schools" of thought, so too
the editorial content of newspapers and magazines is shaped by the interests
of their managing editors or editors-in-chief, so that there are, say,
"*Nation* stories" and "*Smithsonian* stories" and never the twain shall meet.

And actually, I'm not sure how short a shrift anthropology gets. Haven't
done a quantitative study, but anthropologists are certainly often in evidence
in the *NY Times*, which I see daily; and there's no better forum than that
(speaking visibility here). And one anthropologist friend just e-mailed me
a lengthy piece on race that ran in the *Baltimore Sun*, with quotes from a
dozen or so anthropologists; and I know that stories like this are routinely
picked up and covered independently by major papers around the country.

If journalists do not turn to anthropologists (and again, this is a moot
point), it may indeed have something to do with the fact that, as William
Loker points out, there is considerable overlap between journalism and
anthropology--or at least social and cultural anthropology. Journalists
also engage in a kind of ethnography, albeit with less theoretical underpinning,
although journalism also has its own set of rules about identifying and working
with sources, about interviewer bias and conflict-of-interest, and about proper
interview techniques and recording methods (not that they're always followed
with rigor; however, when they are not, they are frequently made public issue
of, witness, for example, the current debate, running in the pages of the NY
Times and elsewhere, over the San Jose Mercury stories claiming a link between
the CIA and crack dealers in CA.; or, a while back, over Newsweek columnist
Joe Klein's revelation that he was Anonymous). So journalists sometimes wind
up doing the legwork themselves, covering the same bases that an anthropologist
might. A recent example was Celia Dugger's terrific piece in the *NY Times* on
female genital mutilation. Journalists do, as Loker says, work within time
limits. That almost necessarily means that their coverage will be spottier.
But who ever claimed it was otherwise? "Fish-wrap" is how newspaper and
magazine writers refer to their product, with both bitter dismay and a
sense that they are being brutally accurate.

Gina Maranto