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.