Digging Deeper: The Overlap of Journalism and Anthropology

It is the nature of a journalist’s profession to dig deeper on a specific topic. One of these topics, for example, could be prompted by the question, “how do anthropology and journalism interact?” Actually, this is not just an example — welcome to what we will be covering in this article today. To roughly (mis)quote the ever-poetic Snoop Dogg, one of the voices of a generation: “greetings loved ones, let’s take a journey [into the world of anthropology and journalism].”

To begin discussing this, one must first ask the question: what is anthropology, and what is journalism? The Merriam-Webster definition of anthropology is, “the science of human beings,” while journalism is defined as, “writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” It is not too far of a stretch to see how these two concepts could interact and overlap. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of The Elements of Journalism, elaborate: “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.” Anthropology deals directly in the lives of people and the act of documenting them — does this not inherently classify journalism as a type of anthropology?

The Associated Press states that journalists should report the news objectively and accurately, uninfluenced by outside factors. This is a key tenet of anthropological study as well; one of the most important guidelines while conducting field research is to record findings without bias, cultural or otherwise.

Based on the codes of ethics of both anthropology and journalism comes the concept of serving the public. “To [the public] they, [anthropologists], owe a commitment to candor and to truth in the dissemination of their research results and in the statement of their opinions as students of humanity,” states the American Anthropology Association. Both of the two disciplines focus heavily on their duty to the public, and share another connection in that regard.

With all of that defined, a more specific example of anthropological journalism can now be explored. Some of the most prominent instances of this type of journalism tend to stem from the great National Geographic. With this publication having an extensive section exclusively on cultures, it is not a stretch of the imagination to find the anthropology in these articles. In fact, many of National Geographic’s reporters, such as Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey, Wade Davis, and Lera Boroditsky, are also anthropologists. This direct interaction of anthropology with journalism serves quite well to answer this exploration’s original question. While not every journalist is explicitly an anthropologist like those named before, it is still possible to see how they might be considered a form of anthropologist — much of the news focuses on the daily lives and goings-on of humans, just like the ethnographies (a scientific description of both individuals and broader cultures) found in anthropological studies.

Taking now a different aspect of journalism and anthropology, both specialties encourage their investigators to be observers, not interventionists. The priority is objective documentation and reporting — the morality of interaction is a secondary, more nuanced consideration. In fact, it is a point of struggle for journalists in particular, as found famously with Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter (“Starving Child and Vulture”). In the mentioned photo, Carter captures the image of a starving child on his way to a feeding center — the truly compelling part of the photo is the vulture stalking the child, waiting for him to die and to be consumed. As Time states, “The New York Times ran the photo, and readers were eager to find out what happened to the child — and to criticize Carter for not coming to his subject’s aid. His image quickly became a wrenching case study in the debate over when photographers should intervene.” Kevin Carter later committed suicide in July of 1994, unable to carry the weight of his actions… and lack thereof.

Wayne Svoboda, Associate Professor at The City of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, gives further insight into the struggle of intervention. While reporting in two different areas of Africa, Svoboda covered firsthand accounts of female genital mutilation and anal rape. As a journalist, and therefore an anthropologist, he arrived at the decision not to intervene in either case. Instead, Svoboda spoke of the more realistic help that a journalist can give: to observe, ask, and listen; to file that information away; to write about it. While specific instances of human injustice are tragic, one single interaction is never going to be enough, especially by an outsider sent to simply document the event. Instead, sharing the information they gather and therefore reaching a widespread audience is a form of good that can be done.

In setting out to explore these various interactions and overlaps between journalism and anthropology, one can find many answers. From the base definitions of each discipline to the struggles each reporter encounters in their field, there is truly compelling evidence of anthropology’s synergy with journalism. One goal of anthropology is to provide holism, or covering the whole picture of a topic. The best journalists will also set out to do this by reporting on many different sides of a story to paint a large image of its implications. Though not explicitly stated by any particular organization, journalists really are a type of anthropologist through the nature of what they do. Both fields are full of altruistic truth-seekers who hope to share the observations they make with others. They seek to document and expand the human experience. And, as the great, intellectual singer Rag’n’Bone Man puts it: “we’re only human, after all.”

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Elliot Mauro

Elliot Mauro

Ambitious and passionate 23 year old journalist. They/them.