It is very hard to know how you get humanities research in the headlines. My recent brush with the Henry VIII tapestries is a case in point. I was extremely excited to find a specimen of what I think is one of the later branches of the family tree of Henry’s originals. But the only way that is deemed newsworthy is if it can be trailed as one of Henry’s originals, that once hung in Hampton Court: as a “discovery” in other words.
But this is only one instance among many of turning the kind of work I do into “news” on the scientific model. To be fair to my scientific colleagues, they probably cringe at the way science is presented on the news (“boffins discover that water is bad for you” or whatever). But there is something dispiriting in the way that every intellectual step forward, every rethink has to be presented as “new” else it wouldn’t get any air time.
I remember a few years back I was giving a lecture at a northern university (with a particularly active press office) on the Philogelos or “Roman joke book”. They had hyped the lecture in a big way, as new insights (which in some important ways it was). On the train up, journalists kept ringing my mobile. Their first question was: where had I found this text? The right answer was obviously “I dug it up from the sands of Egypt”. When I said that I found it on the library, they instantly lost interest – even though I was doing something with the text that no one (I think) had done before.
What counts as new and newsworthy is the question.