A friend asked me the other day why I was changing my career goals from being a journalist to an anthropologist. I couldn’t give her a good answer at the time. I mumbled something about low pay and a competitive drive that I just seemed to lack when it came to the written word.
But it got me wondering and really looking at my reasons why I was switching gears, and now even though the moment is passed, I’d like to answer her question in full:
Being a good journalist and a good anthropologist are actually very similar. You have to find a good question and try to answer it. You must do hours of background research and familiarize yourself with the subject. You must figure out who to ask and what questions to ask them. Then there are more hours of research and compiling your information into one cohesive picture. When you finally think you have enough information to give your readers the right message, you must write it all up in a readable, thought-provoking way, and even then only if you’re lucky will your work be published—unless you’ve been asked by your boss to do this work in which case there’s probably a ridiculously short deadline and it’s not something you particularly care about and you just slap something together and call it a day.
My Journalism teacher in college had his doctorate in Anthropology, and he was one of the best journalists I met, if however also one of the most jaded. Anthropology is the perfect accessory to an aware, mindful journalist, just as journalism and writing are essential skills for an anthropologist who wants to get their findings across to their audience.
Where the line is drawn for me, however, is somewhere among the details. The depth with which you explore the subject matter. The reasons behind why this research is being done. The pace and attitude behind the work. With Anthropology, you are (in theory) painstakingly recording people’s minute behavior and details about their situations. With Journalism you must sum up an entire world event in 1200 words or less (this is a skill, by the way, which is being taught more and more often by social science teachers). Anthropology is more interactive; you have to get to know the people you’re researching. In Journalism you are expected to keep your objective distance and not get involved in your story. To even acknowledge in the story that you were there is considered a bit tacky.
Anthropology seems to emphasize the journey, whereas Journalism emphasizes the destination. For me, an MA in Anthropology offers me the chance to study different topics I love in greater detail, and to apply them to different areas of life, not just in print or other forms of media. An MA in Journalism would have given me a better idea on how to hunt, capture, and skin the story, and not much else. For some, that’s enough. For me, the academic side of me won over the practical side and decided to give the whole researcher gig a shot.
That to me is the final kicker. I remember so often sitting at my computer, typing up all the wonderful stories I’d heard from researchers and scientists into an abbreviated article, and how I kept thinking to myself that I would much rather be the one out there doing the research and being interviewed about it than the other way around. That was why I made the leap. To get out there into the world and see what I could do, not just sit back and write about it.