The Journalist and the Ethnographer

Update: I responded to some of this post’s comments in another post.

Okay, I’m just a month behind in starting my blogging for orgtheory—sorry, I’m a horrible procrastinator. Thanks so much to Katherine for the kind introduction and to the editors for the chance to blog! So about my new book: it’s called Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy, and it’s an ethnographic study of long-term unemployment and economic inequality. I can bore you with details later, but first I thought I’d mention a topic that’s the subject of a high-profile symposium in New York going on right now: the relationship between ethnography and journalism.

The symposium, “Ethnography Meets Journalism—Evidence, Ethics & Trust,” has an all-star lineup of ethnographers and journalists who will talk about the different ways they gather data and tell stories, as well as the misunderstandings and pitfalls that bedevil both approaches. (The event is from 2 to 6 p.m. today in Manhattan, and more details are here; if you can’t attend, you can listen to the livestream, which will be posted online afterward.)

I am not involved with this event, but I thought I’d give my two cents since I have a background in both professions. I’m a sociologist now at Virginia Commonwealth University, but I used to be a newspaper reporter (at New York Newsday), and as labor of love I still edit a magazine called In The Fray, a publication devoted to personal stories on global issues. (We like publishing commentary by academics, by the way, and are looking for a new blogger.)

When I had aspirations to be the next Bob Woodward back in college, I remember stumbling upon The Journalist and the Murderer, a book by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm (who first published the work in 1989 as a two-part series in the New Yorker). The book begins with an incendiary paragraph:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

The Journalist and the Murderer is an account of the relationship between bestselling journalist Joe McGinniss and the subject of one of his true-crime books, Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald. During the course of McGinniss’s research for the book, MacDonald was tried and convicted of the murders of his wife and two children. The Journalist and the Murder excoriated McGinniss for allegedly “conning” his subject—first by befriending him, and then betraying that confidence. (More details about the book can be found here.)

The unethical behaviors that Malcolm describes in her book are extreme, but they speak to an aspect of journalism that many people find troubling: the way that it uses and manipulates its subjects and then casts them aside, all in pursuit of a sensationalistic headline. This sort of behavior may account in part for why journalists rank abysmally low in Gallup polling on honesty and ethics across various professions. It’s part of the reason I decided to go to grad school myself: I love journalism and believe it plays a vital role in our democracy, but I got tired of the ambulance chasing and other less-than-savory things you sometimes have to do.

Institutional review boards and the profession’s code of ethics help sociologists avoid these sorts of problems by setting up protections for the people we interview and observe. This often includes the promise of confidentiality, which can shield our respondents from the public humiliation or retribution at times endured by the subjects of news articles after publication.

Before we pat ourselves on the back, however, sociologists do still run into problems at times in terms of how we present our research to respondents and how they ultimately respond to our work. As someone who teaches research methods, I particularly like Jonathan Rieder’s Canarsie and Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods as examples of how sociologists have dealt with this difficult ethical terrain—particularly the appendix to Lareau’s book where she describes candidly and thoughtfully the hostile reactions some of her respondents had to their portrayal in her book, in spite of the fact that she hid their identities.

Like journalists, can we also be confidence men and women—gaining trust and betraying it? Furthermore, do we have to do that—in order to gain access to begin with, and in order to be truthful to the reality we describe? That’s the age-old question in research ethics, of course.

Interestingly, journalists would say we are guilty of the exact opposite professional sin: being “overprotective” of our respondents. The fact that their identities—and sometimes those of the cities, companies, etc., we research, too—are hidden leads to a number of complications. First, it’s hard to prove to people—particularly skeptical journalists—that what we’ve written is true. What’s to stop us from fabricating our data whole cloth? One obvious safeguard would be the peer review process—and yet it’s not hard to imagine how a determined fabulist could get around even that hurdle.

Fact-checking helps journalists to avoid this problem. I’ve worked as a fact-checker before: what typically happens is the reporter gives you the contact info for their sources, and you call them up and verify each quote and fact. It’s harder to make up stuff when someone is looking over your shoulder in this way. (That said, disgraced journalists like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass remind us that journalism has failed to catch many acts of dishonesty—and with today’s news budgets so strapped, publications no longer have as many resources to verify the information in each article.)

Even when there’s no outright fabrication involved, however, we as sociologists can alienate readers with our methods. We care about protecting our subjects to the point that in our published work we change (hopefully inconsequential) details, create composite characters, and otherwise alter the reality that we actually observed. For some readers, this is a no-no. Consider, for instance, the outcry over the revelation that James Frey changed or fabricated details in his memoir A Million Little Pieces (and this was a memoir—a genre of literature that has long had a tradition of embellishing the past).

As someone who has experience interacting with journalists, I know they look with great skepticism at “anonymous” sources. As they see it, stories based on information collected in this way are by their very nature untrustworthy. Journalistic norms (and sometimes a publication’s own policies) emphasize that there has to be a powerfully compelling reason to grant someone anonymity in an article. Sociologists would say interviewees are more willing to be candid about their personal lives and personally held beliefs if they have the protection of a pseudonym, but journalists would stress the fact that hiding their identities can also encourage them to lie: no one can come after them for making up a damaging story about someone else, for instance.

To the extent that sociology wants to be part of public debates on important issues, skepticism about our data is another reason for lay readers to dismiss our work. Partly, this is because readers just don’t understand the reasons that we believe practices like confidentiality are so important—they’re used to how journalists do their job. But I can imagine they’d have problems even if they understood our reasoning. Why should they trust us? Especially on controversial topics, how do they know we’re not lying, or at least fudging the facts?

It’s not just the question of honesty; it’s also a question of style. Using pseudonyms comes across as a bit hokey—especially for place names, which I imagine sound like the egghead equivalent of “Gotham” or “Metropolis” to non-sociologists.

I’m not sure how to deal with these problems, and I’d be curious what people think. I do think it’d be helpful if sociologists read more journalism (and journalists more sociology) and learn from some of the best practices of the other approach. For sociologists, reading classic works of journalism—from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to Friday Night Lights—can be incredibly illuminating. It can allow us to draw from the literary beauty, perceptiveness, and heft of these writers in ways that serve our ideas. It can inspire us to write without jargon, make our theories more intelligible to lay readers, and not be afraid to reveal to readers the emotional power of our narratives. Those are the best ways, I think, that we can ensure sociology gets read by the people who could best benefit from its messages.

Click here for my responses to the comments.

Written by Victor Tan Chen

September 21, 2015 at 6:45 pm

Posted in ethics, ethnography, policy

15 Responses

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  1. What an interesting combo that I have never put together, sociologists and journalists. Journalism is so agenda/celebrity driven any more that it makes me crazy. 24/7 news cycles don’t help either. They are not reporting more news, just the same thing over and over and… then, they talk about how they, the journalists are covering the story. It’s no wonder they rank so low in public opinion. A rip and read mentality has taken over. I have been watching the news and reading Drudge at the same time and they are reading verbatim what I am reading! Some creativity is needed. Good post!



    September 21, 2015 at 7:22 pm

  2. This is a useful and thoughtful post. Mostly commenting to help boost it, honestly, without much to add to the conversation. But I have been immersed lately in the complex interactions between journalists and ethnographers, and the problem of the tension between protecting subjects and providing replicable information.



    September 22, 2015 at 1:45 am

  3. I was surprised you didn’t mention Alice Goffman’s recent troubles in this post. Many commentators have pointed out that the disagreements stem, in part, from misunderstandings between journalists and sociologists about what constitutes valid research. Jeff Deeney has one take on it. Alex Golub has another (more sympathetic) analysis. Not surprisingly, Deeney takes a journalistic perspective and is ultimately quite critical, while Golub, writing as an ethnographer, is more supportive. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


    Thomas Basboll

    September 22, 2015 at 9:36 am

  4. Hi, if you’re answering requests, I’m curious on your reactions to Sudhir Venkatesh, who teaches at Columbia University calls himself a “rogue” sociologist. I think the accuracy of some of his reporting was questioned.


    Andrew Gelman

    September 22, 2015 at 2:20 pm

  5. Thanks for the kind words, @christinadrh and @olderwoman! @christinadrh, I agree that the news cycle is maddeningly celebrity-driven (*cough* Trump *cough*). However, I would say that non-TV reporters (especially the dying breed of newspaper reporter) are a bit better about writing substantive stories — I know it drives print reporters crazy to be lumped together with cable news people, whom they constantly complain about. Of course, if people actually read the substantive stories (which they don’t), print journalism wouldn’t be in such a financial crisis — investigative reporting is very, very expensive to do, and so you can understand why news outlets have an incentive just to run stories about celebrities, which cost little and people will actually click on (I’m as guilty of this as anyone, sadly).

    @olderwoman, one reason I decided to go to grad school in sociology (as opposed to what I studied in college, history and literature) was that the two fields are very similar in many ways: gather information, analyze it, write it up, repeat. But they take such different ethical stances — not that journalism is unethical, but rather that (at its best) it has a different sort of ethics focused on “truth-telling,” keeping people in power accountable, and rooting out corruption. (It reminds me of a conversation I had recently with colleagues about whether an ethnographer should name a politician he was studying who said racist things — the other ethnographers said he shouldn’t, because we as sociologists are interested in broader social patterns, not in specific individuals. But a journalist would be aghast at that sort of “coddling” — of course you need to tell people that someone in power is a racist, that’s your professional duty!)

    Thomas and Andrew — I knew someone would ask me about specific sociologists! I did link in my post to that NY magazine piece on Alice Goffman, but I didn’t comment on her or Sudhir Venkatesh because (1) I feel I don’t really know enough about what happened (certainly not enough to write a 57-page critique), and (2) my post was already way too long. It’s just a small piece of these broader controversies, but one thing I did want to say is that we as a discipline are going to continue to get allegations of fabrication, whether justified or not, as long as we don’t have ways to independently verify that the data we’ve collected are accurately portrayed in our work. Some of the criticism in the recent news was from people who couldn’t believe that what was written was true. On the one hand, this intuition or “smell test” is important — especially during the peer review, I think, to make sure the researcher can actually justify him or herself. But I also believe that truth is stranger than fiction. If you as an ethnographer do observe something that is outlandish and hard-to-believe, what can you do but include it in your work? And yet then you will open yourself up to accusations of exaggerating or outright fabricating reality.

    Again, I don’t think there’s a good answer for these sorts of dilemmas. Though maybe the folks at the symposium yesterday had better answers — anyone catch it?


    Victor Tan Chen

    September 22, 2015 at 10:59 pm

  6. On the ethics question, I think the — fortunately, rare — ethical lapses do tend to take on a different and arguably more pernicious form in ethnography than in journalism. Journalists aren’t universally above reproach, and I’m certainly not saying they are inherently more ethical than ethnographers. But, I do think that protecting subjects through anonymity also creates opportunities for exploiting them without impunity. (See, e.g., Erich Goode, an example that nicely emphasizes that ethical lapses aren’t a new problem, nor are they confined to rogue urban ethnographers.)



    September 23, 2015 at 1:50 am

  7. Thanks, Victor. This gave me pause: “If you as an ethnographer do observe something that is outlandish and hard-to-believe, what can you do but include it in your work?”

    This is an important question. But surely you can actually leave it out. Consider what happens when a journalist receives information that suggests that something outlandish is going on. The question is not so much whether it is “true”, but whether it will stand up to the sort of scrutiny and pushback it will get upon publication. The question is whether you’ll be able to stand by the story. I think that’s a good working principle in journalism, and it has an analogue in social science: criticism and replication.

    Like journalists, scientists have to check their own biases, their tendency to believe certain kinds of information that leads to certain kinds of conclusions. The problem with including a hard-to-believe ethnographic observation is that, at least in the kind of work Goffman was doing, there’s no check in place to make sure that what you thought you saw or heard was actually what happened or was said. The sort of push-back she eventually got actually caught her off-guard (and, somewhat sillily, aggravated her elbow injury as she typed up her response).

    My view is that ethnographers should get used to having to defend their claims, especially their outlandish ones, against actual criticism. So there would be some observations you wouldn’t include, simply because you know you would not be able to defend them. If they were really important, you’d find a (scientifically valid) way to support them.

    Liked by 1 person

    Thomas Basbøll

    September 23, 2015 at 6:40 am

  8. That NY Magazine was one of the cases I was thinking about. A journalist thinks he has the right (even obligation?) to destroy the privacy of relatively powerless people to debunk, or in this case to his surprise verify, research that attempted to shield these people through confidentiality procedures. Here’s the dilemma: qualitative researchers either may as well use real names because people are not protected at all and you can always figure out who people are despite changing their names, or they have to essentially fictionalize their accounts and make them completely unreplicable. On one side, I know of lots of research using fake names in which the individual people are readily identifiable if you know the community at all. On the other side, I knew an anthropologist in the 1970s who cut people apart and rearranged them into entirely new characters (mixing them up by major traits such as sex) on the grounds that pseudonyms would not protect them and their situation (black people in a small southern town) made them too vulnerable, and I’ve been told this has been done fairly often by other scholars.



    September 23, 2015 at 1:30 pm

  9. […] my first blog post over at, I kicked off a discussion about the relationship between ethnography and […]


  10. @olderwoman: Heidegger once said that historiography approaches journalism as the standards of source criticism decline. I wonder if there is a similar relationship between journalism and ethnography that hinges on ethics. One reason this might be the case is historical: ethnography was originally developed to study moral “inferiors”, i.e., people to whom you didn’t have any particular ethical obligations. Journalists, on the other hand, are often writing about their fellow citizens, and so their ethics are really about maintaining their standing in their community (which is one way of talking about what ethics is all about). Perhaps journalism approaches ethnography to the degree that ethics become irrelevant.

    When anthropology “came home” and started studying our own “tribes”, it should perhaps have asked itself more seriously whether it wasn’t just doing what journalists were already doing (albeit without the immediate pressure to sell newspapers). Its distinctness came from its moral aloofness with regard to its subjects. The idea of studying ourselves with the same sort of condescension that we once studied exotic tribes was a neat trick at the time–and it was presented as something we were (half ironically) doing to ourselves. But, as the Goffman case shows, old habits die hard, and we are easily able to locate groups within our own society that we can hold at ethical arms length while we study them, be that factory workers or the urban poor.


    Thomas Basboll

    September 24, 2015 at 6:50 am

  11. […] responses to the comments on my post about ethnography and journalism were getting way too long (apologies), so I thought I’d throw them into a separate post, and […]


  12. Thanks for all the thought-provoking comments, everyone! In writing up my response to the last round I realized the text was getting (almost) as long as my previous post, so I wrote another blog post that incorporated my responses to you:


    Victor Tan Chen

    September 24, 2015 at 4:41 pm

  13. “Why should they trust us?” Excellent question, because the Goffman debacle has exposed to me that some ethnographers view taking literary license, changing quotes, stories, events, and facts to fit the narrative and “feel” of an ethnography is acceptable scholarship if it fits the narrative.

    It has gotten so bad with OTR, that I find myself discounting many of the things I think she got right, simply because it “feels” that her quotes, stories, and written word fit too perfectly and don’t reflect the messy work that researching and field note recording requires. If we want to create beautiful literature, let’s call the field something else.



    September 24, 2015 at 10:10 pm

  14. Oy! Janet Malcolm again. Over the years, I have asked journalism students to examine closely the lead paragraph of her piece in The New Yorker, which became her book. The key point is this: Daily newspaper journalists don’t get away for long with treating sources shabbily, because the sources get to read daily what the reporters are writing about them. If the reporters betray a confidence or otherwise abuse the sources, the sources have the power to shut the reporter off. Reporters who lose too many sources eventually lose credibility, then lose their jobs.

    In contrast, people who are writing books—like Malcolm—are a different story. In the case of Joe McGinniss, he lived with Jeffrey MacDonald during the trial. Jeffrey thought Joe would be writing a book about Jeffrey the Tortured Innocent. But along the way, McGinniss decided that Jeffrey had committed these horrific crimes. He did not feel the need to let Jeffrey know about his change of heart. So, what a lovely surprise for Jeffrey when Joe’s book came down heavily on the side of Jeffrey’s guilt. I covered the case myself for a decade, for Newsday on and off, and I don’t think Jeffrey ever knew what my actual views (guilty!!!!!) were. Why? I treated him fairly in my stories. The standard is not objectivity, because we all have our prejudices and beliefs, which keep us from being totally objective. The standard is fairness, which is to treat the subject of our stories as we’d want to be treated, no matter what we think about that person. Eventually, I got around to writing a magazine piece about Joe’s book and how it did not exactly meet Jeffrey’s expectations. Only then did I let my own views show.

    Three final points:

    1) Read Victor’s book! He’s a great writer.

    2) When you hear Janet Malcolm lecturing people on the ways of journalists, seek a better source.

    2) Sociologists, like authors of books, do their research over a long period of time. So the people they interview don’t necessarily see what the sociologist will be saying about them until very late in the process—often, too late. Undoubtedly, sociologists would rank above journalists in trustworthiness. But they should keep in ind that they are, of necessity, more like Joe McGinniss than some ink-stained wretch covering daily news. Just sayin’.



    September 24, 2015 at 11:13 pm

  15. I have a lot of thoughts about this–Alexandra Murphy and I are writing a paper on this, actually.

    3 points

    1. Just to be clear, IRB does not make people use pseudonyms. It does seem to suggest it by asking how you will protect their identities, but I have had no trouble at 3 different IRBs with 3 different projects saying on the form, “I will give participants the opportunity to use their real names.” I find it problematic that using fake names and places is so automatic that many ethnographers feel no need to even justify the decision [e.g., a sympathetic portrait of public characters like hot dog vendors will have a footnote saying, “to protect confidentiality, and following ethnographic convention, I use pseudonyms].

    2. I also find it interesting that ethnographers rarely bother to stop and ask what our participants own conception of ethical research is: We think it is ethical to use fake names–and actually, we usually think our ethical obligation has been met once we have changed enough details [aka, created fictionalized characters or settings], but they may have a totally different understanding of what we owe them. For instance, what pissed off Lareau’s participants so much even though they were masked and no one else knew who they were is that they felt she did not portray them as real human beings. That is, it was her professional obligation [or prerogative] to generalize by reducing them to typologies that so upset them. Scheper Hughes found the same, and the story is similar for Small Town in Mass Society. This implies that perhaps part of our ethic should be portraying their humanity, and that may matter to them more than whether we use fake or real names.

    3. The thing about how fake names do not matter because we aim to generalize is also problematic because masking can hinder this scientific aim. For example, we celebrate the ethnographic revisit, which allows us to see how places or social groups change over time [and also, theoretically, enables a kind of replicability test even if there are observer effects], but it is often impossible to do because ethnographers mask the people and places they study [indeed, Burawoy’s celebrated revisit may have only been able to happen felicitously, as Roy masked the factory name.] For some claims, we would actually need to know the particular people to test some of the ethnographer’s claims–for instance, did Lareau’s concerted cultivation kids have the adult life outcomes she implied they would? For other revisits we need only know the place, but places are often masked too as part of the slippery slope that one slides down after committing to hiding identities. Masking also makes quantitative revisits impossible–we could imagine, for instance, a neighborhood effects scholar testing some of the ethnographer’s claims about a case study of a violent neighborhood by including the case study in their dataset, but not if the neighborhood is not identified [see the quant revisit of Klinenberg’s heatwave claims made possible because he named the neighborhoods].


    Colin Jerolmack

    September 24, 2015 at 11:18 pm

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