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Book review of Bird (2010) The Anthropology of News & Journalism

November 18, 2010

Review of Bird, S. Elizabeth (ed), 2010. The Anthropology of News & Journalism: global perspectives. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

by John Postill

NB – this is a draft, for the final version see in due course the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, JRAI

This landmark volume opens with the valid premise that media anthropologists have so far neglected the study of the news media and journalism in favour of entertainment media such as radio, television and film. The book sets out to rectify this situation by bringing together leading scholars in the field with contributions published here for the first time. The aim is to reach out not only to other anthropologists but also to students and scholars in media, communication and journalism studies. Describing news as a form of ‘cultural meaning making’ or ‘cultural storytelling’ the editor, Elizabeth Bird, argues that anthropologists have an important contribution to make to the long overdue de-Westernisation of this interdisciplinary field.  The book consists of an Introduction followed by three sections of varying length: Part 1 (eight chapters) on the ethnography of news production, Part 2 (five chapters) on everyday news practices and Part 3 (three chapters) on news in the new media era.

The Anthropology of News & Journalism succeeds admirably on a number of fronts. First, it broadens the scope of news from its traditional focus on the Anglo-American newsroom (Wahl-Jorgensen) by demonstrating that news comes in many shapes and forms around the globe, including personal funeral announcements on Zambian public radio (Spitulnik), digitised newsmaking in post-reunification Germany (Boyer), gossip-mediated news in provincial Portugal (Drackle) and news-like popular music genres among activists in the United States (Pedelty).  Second, many of the book’s chapters deftly weave together the theoretical and the empirical through ethnographic vignettes that capture both the quotidianity and the contingency of news-related practices (see in particular Spitulnik, Peterson and Boyer). Third, the empirical examples track global historical transitions in the journalistic field that display diverging regional trajectories. We learn, for instance, about the commercialisation and (uneven) democratisation of African journalism from the late 1980s through the 1990s (Hasty, Spitulnik), about the rise in India from the early 1990s of a neo-Hinduist, commercialised press (Rao, Peterson), and about the leftist-populist turn in early C21 Latin America epitomised by Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader who has ‘neutered an aggressive watchdog Western-style press’ (Manzella and Yacher).  Finally, far from being at the mercy of invisible market forces, media tycoons or state apparatuses, journalists and other news-making actors are compellingly portrayed as historical agents caught in swift technological and societal changes not of their own making. Thus we follow the trials and tribulations of politicians and journalists in London after a volcanic eruption in the British colony of Montserrat (Skinner), German journalists straining to adapt to a digitised workplace (Boyer), young Christian activists in Bethlehem framing their actions to meet the perceived priorities of Western media (Bishara), and Vietnamese photojournalists during the Vietnam War who regarded their professional work as part of a popular struggle against American imperialism (Schwenkel).

The one area where the volume falls short of expectations is the scant mention of social network sites, micro-blogging sites and mobile devices in the empirical materials presented. Only three of the book’s sixteen chapters are devoted to ‘new media’ developments, which is rather disappointing for a volume published in 2010. Of course, this is in part a product of the long fieldwork and publishing cycles that characterise anthropological knowledge production, but a closer engagement with mid- to late 2000s technologies would have nonetheless strengthened the book.

At any rate, this volume will remain a key work of reference in the field for many years to come. It greatly enriches the media anthropological corpus and offers a range of case studies and conceptual tools that students and scholars in the anthropology of media and neighbouring fields will want to apply and develop in new contexts. These include the earlier mentioned idea of news as cultural meaning-making (Bird), the suggestion that newspaper readers are engaged in complex ‘literacy practices’ (Peterson), the emic perception that digital technologies contribute to the Aushöhlung (‘hollowing out’) of journalistic practice (Boyer), or the contention that present-day (online) journalism has entered a ‘post-objective era’ (Russell).

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