Responsible Popularization and the History Channel

11 Jun

I like to use the term “responsible popularization” for quality anthropological/archaeological public education materials. Sure, popular media sometimes have to simplify complex topics. They skim over the minute details that fascinate professional researchers. Sometimes we wish popular articles or TV documentaries would phrase things a little more accurately. But their job is to create a compelling narrative that will draw a wider audience to the wonders of scientific research. Combining accuracy with entertainment can be a daunting challenge; too much data and it’s boring, too much exaggeration and it becomes misleading, or even pseudoscientific. Balancing these necessities is what makes responsible popularization, responsible, and not just popular.

Why is the History Channel obsessed with conspiracy theories?

An article published at Salon.com today called “Why is the History Channel Obsessed with Conspiracy Theories?” by Alex Seitz-Wald highlights the dangers of trying too hard to be popular. I often recommend the Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, PBS, http://www.archaeologychannel.org, and others as reasonably reliable sources of accurate (though popularized) information. In recent years, I haven’t been comfortable recommending the History Channel, whose sad decline Mr. Seitz-Wald describes very well. They still occasionally do history (even good history), but it’s interspersed with pseudoscientific nonsense. Viewers shouldn’t have to constantly question whether what they’re watching is supported by generally accepted, peer-reviewed research or “for entertainment purposes only.”

What do you think? If you were running a network, what ideas would you have for responsibly balancing ratings and reality?

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