Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: The Observer, October 24, 2000
Source URL: http://www.nd.edu/~observer/10242000/Viewpoint/3.html

Eliminate slant in journalistic reporting as in anthropological studies

Brittany Morehouse

Let's be objective. Let's summarize an event by stating the facts. Let's be journalists.

Students unsuspectingly adopt a label when they declare a major. Business majors — good entertainers; psychology majors — good listeners. And so on. This matching of personalities to majors is a college sub-culture cliché. Resorting to labeling is not all bad — it serves as a mechanism of identification to put order in our world.

The tricky part is with people who are bi-majored. And, within this population, what if the two majors are characterized in a conflicting sort of way? For example, journalism combined with anthropology. Are they mutually exclusive in goals and methods? Will trying to be both create an identity crisis? (Should I start saving for visits to some future analyst's office?) Addressing a recent controversy over a topic in anthropology, one example of irresponsible journalism raises this question.

In USA Today on Oct. 2, reporter Dan Vergano attempts to summarize a problem raised by the pending release of a book by Patrick Tierney, also a journalist, titled, "Darkness in El Dorado." Rather than remain neutral, as journalists should, Vergano mixes dispassionate objectivism with inference and confusion. There is no justification to call into question the integrity of the entire field of anthropology, which is, unfortunately, the end result of Vergano's piece. Where Vergano's job is to report on a controversial debate, he instead attempts to influence the outcome of that debate.

The storm swirls around Tierney's accusations of unethical, unscientific conduct by researchers in studying the Yanomami people of the Amazon River basin. One of the field workers charged is Napolean Chagnon, an anthropologist notorious for his characterization of this tribe as a "warlike" and "violent" group. The Yanomami: "A Fierce People" provides an ethnographic portrayal of their violent practices while showing how far removed the Yanomami are from modern society. Thus, the reader is left to infer from the data that humans are innately fierce and brutal in naturalistic conditions. This conclusion is highly controversial.

Tierney's work draws into the spotlight some serious questions about Chagnon's methodology, and that is as it should be. Scientists are subject to scrutiny.

However, Vergano reports the intra-disciplinary disagreement in melodramatic fashion. Rather than describing the scholastic debate forum, he projects an image of cartoonish researchers engaging in soap opera antics. The quotes he chooses, the tone of the piece, the focus on negative backbiting of Chagnon, all stir up trouble rather than address issues raised by Tierney in his book. Vergano also gratuitously dredges up old controversies in the field of anthropology. For example, the court battle between a group of anthropologists and Native Americans over the 9,000-year-old bones of a Kennewick Man is quite mysteriously brought up, with Vergano actually suggesting that some bones might be missing from those returned to the Native Americans. This is irrelevant to the story.

Vergano's leading and concluding lines, the most important in journalism, are accurate indicators of the overall sensationalistic tack taken in his piece. He begins, "The last time rain-forest science caused this much excitement, Indiana Jones was fleeing boulders and blowguns on the big screen." This choice of allusion trivializes the serious nature of the problem.

In his news piece about the hot topics surrounding "Darkness in the El Dorado," Vergano cleverly avoids choosing sides by indirectly asking a new question on whether or not anthropology might be out of control. His ability to manipulate the reader into feeling as though they are learning of the news through an omniscient voice is inadvisable at best.

The real issue here is not whether Tierney's charges are true. Those closely involved in the field will sort that out. What deserves scrutiny here is when journalism steps outside neutral objectivity. The public perceives journalists as unbiased: they expect them to be unless the piece is labeled an opinion editorial. Slanted journalism has the potential to destroy the credibility of others — in this case, a discipline that is in the business of understanding people.

This is where anthropology has something to teach journalism. Anthropology's task, which is uniquely its own, is to report on a people or culture as dispassionately as possible. However, in that reporting, anthropologists are taught to be constantly cognizant of the way their personal history intrudes on their observations. This awareness is emphasized so that when doing fieldwork the anthropologist is sensitized to the way a personal viewpoint might influence the data.

Moreover, they realize that once they take on the task of studying a culture, they assume the mantle of fellow human being, and thereby are bound to the common rules of civility and caring that humans must share.

Journalism's task, which is uniquely its own, is to present the facts of a situation or issue as dispassionately as humanly possible. It is the task of the reader to then form conclusions about the reporting. Vergano went over and beyond the boundaries of reporting, into the area of fomenting dissent and conflict. He has charged the anthropological barrel of apples to all be rotten based on one bad piece of fruit. This is not his place. To cast aspersions on the entire field is to generalize too much.

Both fields are supposed to inform others about something the public otherwise would have no way of knowing. Journalists, unlike anthropologists, do not have the opportunity, i.e. the space, in their work to explain to the reader how their history and mindset is influencing their reporting. What they can borrow from anthropologists is to be extra sensitive of the impact of their words, even as they remain extra careful to embrace objectivity.

Journalists and anthropologists have more in common than not; perhaps the key is in the way they express conscience in their finished work. As for me, I hope my values are inculcated strongly enough to allow my conscience to lead the way, no matter which hat I may be wearing.

Brittany Morehouse is a senior American studies and anthropology major. She would like to tell Scott in San Diego that on behalf of the student body, he is in our thoughts and prayers. We are with him all the way.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.