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Archaeology and the Echo Chamber: Getting the Media to Do Their Job

Specialist journalists such as science and religion writers/editors are expected to have some knowledge of the subject they cover, but at general periodicals and TV networks, it’s rare to find a reporter who has what one could realistically call subject-matter expertise. What expertise reporters do have is acquired almost exclusively on the job in the course of covering a subject area and contains a certain amount of the eccentricity of the self-taught. In general, most journalists’ main area of expertise is in locating and interviewing people who can be quoted as experts on the topic in question.

By Michael Buettner
Reporter, The Progress-Index
June 2011

A number of articles on The Bible and Interpretation have called attention to a persistent problem with media coverage of biblical archaeology: a sensationalizing tendency that often leads to headlines and stories that have little or no basis in genuine science or scholarship.1 Most recently, this was the topic of an article by Thomas S. Verenna.2 It’s a subject that scholars find so vexing that it was a major topic at a Duke University conference in 2009.3

These articles and discussions have raised many valid points and some potentially helpful suggestions,4 and I don’t flatter myself that I can offer a comprehensive solution to a problem that so many fine minds have tackled. What I do hope to offer, as a journalist for nearly 30 years with a lifelong interest in archaeology and history, is simply to offer some information about my industry that might be exploitable in this effort.

One thing that needs to be said at the outset is that this problem has some deep and intractable causes beyond anything the news media do or do not contribute. On a visit to any large bookstore, you will find yards of shelf space devoted to works of pseudo-history, including a substantial subset in the Bible As History category. A glance at the TV listings for a given week will yield similar results: substantial hours of programming occupied by “documentaries” on ancient aliens, Nostradamus, Atlantis, in addition to the “mysteries of the Bible“ programs chronicling searches for the two arks (Noah’s and that of the Covenant) or for “scientific” explanations of the parting of the Red Sea or the Great Flood.

It seems there is a sizable market for this stuff, as well as people who are able and willing to create products to meet the demand. It almost appears that a sort of Gresham’s Law is operating: Bad research crowds out the good. The fact that so many members of the public are unable to see the obvious inadequacy of this kind of “research” reflects, in my opinion, a society-wide failure of education and a not-unrelated ignorance of the nature and value of academic and scientific rigor.

Clearly, this is not something that can be fixed overnight. The media reflect this failure to some extent but also bear a share of the blame for it. Journalists, according to legend at least, are supposed to be skeptical of people’s claims and to insist on verifying everything before publishing or broadcasting it. This attitude may always have been more mythical than real, but even as an ideal it seems to be fading. There’s no need to go through a detailed recital here of the well-known problems facing the news media today. However, it’s important to take note of some factors that act as specific disincentives for reporters to exercise their analytical or evaluative skills.

1. As control of the media has passed to Wall Street and the MBAs,5 newsroom staffs have been cut drastically and performance increasingly is measured more by quantity than quality. In practice, this means that while reporters are still expected to produce “enterprise” stories (longer news features that incorporate significant original reporting or research), they’re also required to bang out “spot news” every day. In many newsrooms, editors encourage reporters to look for “easy” stories, “layups” that require zero or minimal reporting. Often, these stories are just lightly rewritten press releases, with no fact-checking involved (something that has come back to haunt numerous news organizations that have been duped by hoax press releases.6)

2. The push for ever-wider profit margins also affects story selection, influencing news judgment for the worse. In the quest for eyeballs on the page or the electronic screen, an increasing number of editors are convinced that sensationalism is the royal road to circulation, ratings and ad sales. This attitude is reinforced by news organizations’ increasing use of surveys and focus groups to guide their philosophy toward story selection. Thus, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and any reporter or editor who makes a habit of pricking bubbles or urging caution will quickly develop a reputation for having a negative attitude or “trying to keep news out of the paper.”

3. Accusations of bias against the media have made many journalists shy about expressing firm conclusions about any issue whatsoever. For decades, journalism schools have adopted the view that “objectivity” is unattainable and that journalists must instead seek “balance” in their stories by presenting both sides of any controversy. While such balance is desirable in a story about a subject over which sincere people can reasonably disagree, it has been widely criticized for its tendency to create false equivalences (e.g., must every story about the Holocaust include a quote from a Holocaust denier for the sake of “balance”?). But it’s still standard procedure for many newsrooms. Thus, if Mr. A asserts that he has discovered an artifact that proves his argument that King Arthur was a Martian and the founder of Freemasonry, the reporter must a.) avoid expressing any conclusion of his own as to the veracity of this claim and b.) be careful not to appear to favor the counterclaim by Professor B that Mr. A is a looney.

4. As some recent cases make clear in relation to the field of biblical archaeology specifically,7 unpleasant legal ramifications can result from disagreements among scientists and scholars. Editors and reporters are regularly reminded by their companies about the details of libel law and the possible costliness of losing a lawsuit. There are two basic ways to avoid this fate: a.) Make absolutely sure that whatever you publish or broadcast about a person or company is factually and provably true, or b.) don’t publish or broadcast anything that might be considered defamatory. Obviously, option a.) requires much more work than option b.), which means b.) is by far the more popular strategy. Thus, if an expert asserts baldly that “Mr. A is a looney and obviously has faked this artifact himself,” the statement is likely to be paraphrased into meaninglessness (“Professor B expressed skepticism about Mr. A’s claims”) or suppressed entirely.

5. Specialist journalists such as science and religion writers/editors are expected to have some knowledge of the subject they cover, but at general periodicals and TV networks, it’s rare to find a reporter who has what one could realistically call subject-matter expertise. What expertise reporters do have is acquired almost exclusively on the job in the course of covering a subject area and contains a certain amount of the eccentricity of the self-taught. In general, most journalists’ main area of expertise is in locating and interviewing people who can be quoted as experts on the topic in question.

Now, none of this justifies the claim made by many public-relations professionals and media consultants to the effect that “All journalists are lazy and stupid, and I can show you how to manipulate them into giving you free publicity.” But it does mean that journalists can be, and often are, manipulated by the PR industry as well as political groups, businesses, issue-based pressure groups and, needless to say, authors of unscientific books and makers of baseless documentary films about biblical archaeology.

Somewhat regretfully, I’m compelled to suggest that the best way for serious scientists and real scholars to combat the fakers is to adopt some of these PR methods. But the first and most fundamental requirement is that some person or organization make a firm commitment to performing this function, and to do it consistently and aggressively.

In a comment on the article by Thomas Verenna referenced above, I suggested the creation of “a sort of rapid-response debunking organization that could blast out press releases” calling attention to the flaws in the arguments and evidence behind such recent stories as the “Crucifixion Nails” and the “Lead Codices.” Such an organization could be, for instance, a standing committee connected with an existing organization. Jim West has cited the Archaeology and Media Committee of the American Schools of Oriental Research as a potential leader in this kind of effort.8 This strikes me as a potentially useful idea. However, that committee to date does not appear to have taken up the challenge and as of this writing doesn’t even appear to have its own presence on the ASOR home page. In short, leadership on this issue has yet to emerge.

I’m inclined to think that a truly effective effort will require a standalone organization dedicated primarily to the issue of accuracy in media coverage of biblical archaeology. It would have its own respectably sober-sounding name (“Association for Responsibility in Biblical Archaeology and Textual Studies,” e.g.) to give institutional authority and weight to any statements or releases it issues, which would help journalists feel comfortable quoting its pronouncements. (The inclusion of some members from the media side also would be a plus.) The organization’s website would constitute a standing resource for reporters, and ideally would include a database listing researchers in the relevant fields of study, including their credentials, as well as links to the kind of sites Verenna describes in the referenced article as “the Biblioblogging community — those academics who blog on subjects relating to the Bible,” thus becoming a sort of Biblioblog Central and making it easer for reporters to find these sites. It would also provide an archive of its own releases, as well as links to other online articles about the topics and controversies on which the organization has taken a position. And of course it would make use of search-engine optimization strategies to make sure anyone doing research on related topics would be led to its site.

Perhaps most importantly, the organization’s members would take responsibility for maintaining a database of news organizations’ and reporters’ email addresses; monitoring the media and cyberspace for emerging stories; and, when appropriate, pushing out releases that debunk or critique the claims being made. Naturally, all releases would have to be written so as to get the immediate attention and interest of reporters, editors and news directors — in effect, to tell them, “Hey, over here, this is where the real story is.” These releases would distributed to the media both directly and through widely used (and cross-linked) services such as PR Newswire, in addition to being posted on the organization’s website and sent to the Biblioblogs.

Of course, the organization’s statements would reflect a sensitivity to the media’s liability concerns, and would address the evidence and arguments rather than the individuals promoting them. However, the brute fact of the organization’s existence as a sound, solid, scientific association would in itself help allay any fears of legal complications.

At minimum, the availability of this organization’s statements would help get reporters to incorporate accurate information in any stories they end up writing, and it might help determine the “spin” of the stories. For example, in the case of Mr. A and his Arthurian delusions, instead of “Researcher says inscription proves King Arthur was Martian,” the headline might read, “Experts say amateur’s King Arthur claims are bunk.” But perhaps a better outcome, the organization’s statements might convince news organizations that a particular claim simply is not worth repeating.

Obviously, an effort like this would involve considerable time and effort (possibly some full-time staff), and money, to set up and maintain. This is why I said the first requirement is to find someone willing to make the commitment to do it. Of course, waiting for “someone” to solve a problem is one of the main reasons so many problems go unsolved. It’s debatable whether the kind of effort I’ve described is really a workable strategy to stem the flow of misinformation, but either way, the really big question is how important the academic community believes that goal is.


1 See, for example, “Biblical Studies and the Media.” Joseph B. Tyson, March 2011 (; “On the Misuse of Archaeology for Evangelistic Purposes.” Robert R. Cargill, June 2010 ( ); “The Distortion of Archaeology and What We Can Do About It.” Eric H. Cline, October 2009 (

2 “Artifacts and the Media: Lead Codices and the Public Portrayal of History.” Thomas S. Verenna, May 2011 (

3 Duke Conference on Archaeology, Politics and the Media, Duke University, April 23-24, 2009. Audio files of the presentations are online via the American Schools of Oriental Research at

4 In particular, Jim West’s “Stalemate: Archaeological Research, The Public and Our Responsibility” on The Bible and Interpretation, September 2009 (http://www. shtml
) has some practical recommendations.

5 The paradigm case of this shift in control is Knight-Ridder Inc. In 2005, this national newspaper chain had posted a profit for five years in a row but was nevertheless forced to sell itself off by its largest shareholder, an investment fund management firm. See “Sell or Else! A big investor’s threat to Knight Ridder is bad news for the newspaper industry.” Rem Rieder, American Journalism Review, November 2005 (; “The Knight Ridder Fade-out: A once-great newspaper chain reaches the end of the line.” Rem Rieder, American Journalism Review, April-May 2006 ( article.asp?id=4069).

6 Some indication of the scale of this problem is the fact that a recent Google search for “hoax” and “press release” turned up 22 million hits. Also see this story about the “churning” of press releases ( and this story ( about hoax press releases as means of stock market manipulation.

7 Bible and Interpretation readers will already be familiar with the James Ossuary controversy and related indictments. This site has a collection of entries on the topic at James_Ossuary_essays.shtml.

8 See note 4.