My 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 also encourage more people to chime in. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks, which brought up new issues from provocatively different vantage points. (If you haven’t read their comments, I’d encourage you to do so!)
I agree with @krippendorf’s comment that the use of anonymity can make it possible to exploit our respondents and twist their words, and that’s probably the biggest problem that my inner journalist has with this prevalent practice that ethnographers (myself included) engage in. (A caveat: there is clearly variation in how ethnographers do their work, as @olderwoman pointed out, which would even include the degree of anonymity we use. I’ll get into this more in a second.) At the same time, it’s interesting how journalism opens itself up to pernicious forms of exploitation of a different kind—what I think Janet Malcolm was getting at—in terms of using people and not considering more carefully the consequences of quoting them in a story. So it seems both fields have their own Achilles heels, and perhaps we just need to accept they go about things in different ways that are ethical on their own terms (though I do think that both fields can learn from the other and maybe find a happier middle ground).
Thomas Basbøll makes a good point that an ethnographer needs to be very cautious in making claims because of the inability in many cases to prove that what you wrote is, without a doubt, true. (Of course, in part that’s not even up to you, because of the ethical/IRB need or norm of protecting respondent identities that we’ve been talking about.) However, I do think one of the strengths of ethnography is its ability to stumble across unexpected situations or outcomes, which in turn can help refine or challenge our theories (with all the caveats that the sample is almost always small and unrepresentative, etc.). But those findings will naturally lead to skepticism because they don’t fit with people’s preconceptions—and, if they’re unflattering to certain people or groups, they may also lead to vicious pushback, however unwarranted it is.
As a former newspaper reporter, I would add that print journalism, as it is practiced from day to day, operates routinely with a pretty low standard of verifiability. Yes, sources often get recorded on tape or video, providing documentary evidence, but most of the time reporters are just writing things down in their spiral notebooks. They simply don’t have the time to do much else, given deadline constraints. Also, recording an interview changes the dynamic—encouraging the source to use her bland “on the record” voice—and journalists don’t want that. As a result, they typically reserve taping for remarks by politicians or other elites. But the result is that, in many stories, they quote people who then go on to say they were misquoted, and it becomes a he-said-she-said situation. (That happened to me once: a low-level government official made an off-the-cuff comment that he later regretted, and afterward started telling people I made up the quote. I called him and chewed him out for doing that, but there was no way for me to “prove” to other people he had lied because I hadn’t recorded him.) Nevertheless, this is something that happens more often than you’d think, and that’s because journalists (like ethnographers) are dealing with messy real-world constraints.
Now, to bring us back to that earlier point about variations in the practice of ethnography: it’s interesting how many different approaches you can find among the most ethical of ethnographers—all of whom, let’s stipulate, are trying to do right by both their respondents and their research. As @olderwoman pointed out, some people just use pseudonyms, some people change details (but only a little), and some people go all out and create composite characters. I can see the ethical rationale for all these approaches. (And in any case, I can’t imagine a room full of ethnographers could be forced to pick any one strategy as the professional best practice, even under pain of death.)
On the other hand, as one of the commenters in the Alex Golub piece that Thomas recommended wrote, perhaps we’re kidding ourselves that any of these strategies truly do protect our respondents’ confidentiality. Even if you create composites and change certain details, I think you’re still divulging a pattern of data that someone close to the respondent would recognize, and that person would therefore be able to figure out that their friend, etc., provided at least some of those details to the ethnographer.
Also, as another commenter discussed in the Golub piece, respondents are often disappointed to learn their real names won’t be published. When I was working as a journalist, I found that people would divulge sensitive details to me or other reporters—for example, about some trauma they’d experienced—and afterward they would tell us they were happy to see their name in print. It gave them a sense of validation to see their story out there and have other people know they actually experienced this. Sometimes, they were contacted afterward by people who related to their story or wanted to help them, and they said they were grateful for that opportunity.
Now, it’s also very true that many people need a promise of confidentiality in order to feel comfortable telling their story completely and truthfully. And it goes without saying that sources—even nonelites—will exploit the fact that their real names are being used in order to profit from the attention in some way. For example, a few times I had the hunch that someone was telling me a sob story in order to garner sympathy and get donations from the newspaper’s readers.
I suppose my overall, personal stance on the conundrums we’ve been talking about is that it’s important to recognize the various ethical and practical tradeoffs of all these approaches—and not just the distinct practices of journalism and ethnography, but also the different ones used within each tradition. I know that’s wishy-washy of me, but life, as they say, is multivariate.
From the Washington Post:
Wealthy and middle-class baby boomers can expect to live substantially longer than their parents’ generation. Meanwhile, life expectancy for the poor hasn’t increased and may even be declining, according to a report published Thursday by several leading economists.
Call it a growing inequality of death — and it means that the poor ultimately may collect less in money from some of the government’s safety net programs than the rich.
As of 2010, the average, upper-income 50-year-old man was expected to live to 89. But the same man, if he’s lower income, would live to just 76, according to the report.
The inequality itself isn’t surprising. What is more surprising is the stagnation in the lowest portions of the income distribution. I would like to see how cause of death varies across the income spectrum, to see exactly what might be at work here.
You will read a lot of insightful and nuanced discussion of Scott Walker’s campaign for president. Here, I want to offer an additional analysis – the “entertainment” theory of the GOP and its primary process. Normally, what you’ve seen in American politics is that various factions, or coalitions, put up candidates and that each coalition gets a fair share of the vote (e.g., liberals have Bernie Sanders now) and primaries are fought between a small number of candidates.
What happened so that the GOP has now fielded 16 contenders? The answer is that one of the major coalitions inside the GOP (the populists) has abandoned normal political practice, which usually entails vetting a small number of candidates from the ranks of the party elites. Instead, they are directing attention at candidates for their entertainment value. In other words, a significant chunk of the GOP now judges candidates not on what they’ve done or their political connections, but how amusing they are on television.
Why does this matter? It matters because the dynamics of entertainment are very different than the dynamics of traditional politics. In traditional politics, people spend a career building a reputation and social capital. You help people and they help you back. That means a certain level of stability. In contrast, if you judge people on entertainment value, then you create an unstable environment. Candidates get stale, and you move from one to the other.
The entertainment theory of the GOP does imply that eventually establishment candidates have the upper hand because entertainment does not get people out to the polls and caucuses. Organization and personal attachment to the party and candidate gets people to the polls. Scott Walker was victim of this dynamic. Tough talk got him attention, boredom set in, and now we have Fiorina, Trump, and Carson.
In August and September, the Open Borders group sponsored a contest for a No Deportation logo. Here is the winner, submitted by Stefan from Austria. You have permission to re-post it. If you are against deportations, forced refugee camps, and migration restriction, please feel free to use it in your Facebook account, Twitter feed or other media.
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.