Digventures blog

‘We just don’t know…’

Blogger Lucy Shipley discusses Rumsfeldian approaches to science journalism

Over the last few months, I’ve noticed the beginnings of a new online conversational trend taking over from cats in compromising positions, Gangnam-style flashmobs and freedom-of-the-press-rants. There has been a surge of interest in science (including archaeological science), and in the way that people write about it, talk about it and present it on the TV. Science journalism is under the spotlight.

There was a controversial piece written by Elaine Glaser in the Guardian about the use of “wonder” in science broadcasting – a critique levelled at Professor Brian Cox in particular. In addition, the nation was united in comment (though divided in opinion) on both the Richard III press conference and the follow up programme. Everybody I spoke to, inside and outside archaeology, had something to say about the project, the findings, the media coverage and the documentaries. Their responses ranged from intense frustration to fascination, and usually involved a bit of both. Last week, “Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons” provoked a smaller, but
equally strong, wave of reaction. This morning, I read this post on Science Blogs and even though it’s about physics, many of the same issues discussed apply to archaeology (or at least, I think they do, please let me know if they don’t and I’m just bonkers).

In spite of the rise of access to information online, the rush of bloggers and the potential for direct interaction between author and audience, there seems to be a standard format for how we talk about science. Reports start with a snappy one liner, go on to a description, add some adapted quotes, and, without linking the ideas together, explain what the findings mean in super simplified language.

In my (probably very biased) opinion, these explanations turn out all too often to be patronising, inaccurate, or pointless. Then you end up with the biggest cliché of science journalism there is, employed whenever there’s a question still to be answered – you guessed it, “we JUST don’t know.” Add in some poor basic research, as in this Daily Mail article by Lewis Smith which described human remains from an Etruscan site as Roman, and all the ingredients are present for a perfect storm of misinformation. While the Daily Mail example is extreme, this phenomenon of poor mainstream archaeological journalism is still happening in blogging, on TV and elsewhere.

There are so many creative, passionate, amazing people I’ve spoken to about archaeology in recent weeks, ranging from industry pros to my next-door neighbours. Surely, there must be a way of communicating archaeology that includes, involves and enthuses them all and blows the traditional tired edutainment format out of the water? I’d like to see more focus on content and less on production values, and more inclusion of the audience as active thinking participants than as disciples to be initiated. I’d like popular science reporting to actively encourage continued links between academics and interested readers/viewers, even after the initial excitement dies away. Most importantly, I’d like to see tighter, more accurate journalism, presenting well-researched information for an audience who are partners in knowledge transfer. When there is a controversy or a question, why not present all viewpoints and allow the viewer or reader to make up their own mind?

So, I’m really excited that DigVentures are promoting a new group of bloggers, just as they are challenging traditional means of funding excavation. The DigVentures phenomenon (Eds. note here…not sure we’re a phenomenon, but eeeek it’s nice to be noticed!) has its roots in the inclusive spirit of Time Team – one of the biggest revolutions ever in science communication on television. It shows the human side of “experts” and invigorates the viewer through both the ambiguity and ambition of archaeological interpretation. The desire for involvement and active contribution in archaeological research demonstrated by television audiences through social media over the last few weeks demonstrates the great opportunity for audience participation which the internet has provided. Perhaps Time Team’s legacy is access to archaeology for a mass audience…and given the internet is a gateway to everything that most of us carry in our pockets…taken together this makes a very interesting connection indeed. Certainly the challenge of developing new methods of exciting and exacting science communication is as relevant now as it was when Time Team started, especially when the world audience can be anyone who has access to a computer!

How would you like to see people talking about archaeology? What would you do to change the presentation of the past in the media? Would you start your own blog? I’d love to hear.

Lucy Shipley is a doctoral student in archaeology at the University of Southampton, working on the archaeology of Etruscan Italy.

Twitter: @lshipley805

Personal blog: http://potsplacesstonesbones.blogspot.co.uk/

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Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Co-founder and Managing Director of DigVentures, Lisa makes sure the boxes are ticked, the diggers run on time, and that everyone has a *really* good time along the way. She is responsible for the Americanisms, ridiculously strong site coffee and early morning DV dance parties.

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