History and the Media

I have a lot of sympathy for historical studies that pick up media attention.  On the one hand it allows a wide range of people to find out about your work – Great!  On the other hand you are at the whim of journalists reporting it correctly – Not so great!

The one at the moment is from Prof. Broadberry over in Warwick Uni, see this article, where it is claimed that “Medieval Britons were richer than modern poor people, study finds”.  Many papers have picked up on the story (no doubt encouraged by the department or centre of study) and they have picked up on the part they find interesting, ignoring many important factors.  First things first in this one story, Broadberry is an Economist, not an historian.  This is relevant because in the discussion surrounding this, people attack his knowledge of history which is not his job.  His job is statistics, which he has provided, how well I do not know as I have not yet read his article, any elaboration on these finds has to be the job of historians.  Problem number two there is a gaping hole in his findings which he himself acknowledges (the lack of knowledge about wealth distribution), I picked the link above because it does show Broadberry’s next step in his research which other reports do not.  What we do not get told, because it is not considered interesting or worth the words, is exactly how they came to this figure, how comparative currencies were equated and all the other problems the study would have resolved (and will no doubt be found in his subsequent article) but, because they are unreported, it is assumed the research was a waste of time and showed nothing.

It reminds me of an interview I took from an archaeologist at Nottingham Uni, Jon Henderson, who is in charge of an underwater excavation in southern Greece.  The dig, called Pavlopetri, is believed to be one of the oldest underwater towns found.  He gave a press release which was manipulated and the media ended up deciding Henderson had discovered Atlantis, or at least the root of the myth, see this article.  In my interview with him he pointed out that he made no reference at all to Atlantis, but the fact it was a town under the sea the media had a field day.  Now whenever he gets an interview, the topic of Atlantis comes up rather unhelpfully.

This form of reporting then reaffirms in readers’ minds that academia is not producing anything worthwhile and in turn is wasting the limited funding it receives; this image is not useful at the moment!  So how does one get around this? I have no idea.  Although classicist Mary Beard seems to be doing alright with her blog, which is always a good read, see here.  Maybe self-promotion is the best policy at the moment?

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