Monday, July 21, 2008

Journalism and research

One of the things journalists always want more time to do is investigative research. They want time to dig into the facts of a case. They want to study more than one or two sides of it. They want time to interview a lot of people. They want to go to the depths of the case and find the truth. Investigative research or "gravende journalistikk" in Norwegian is the holy grail, the justification for all the other work journalists do, the reason why we need those who find and spread the real truth about society.

As long as the investigations concern something OTHER than journalism.

My colleague Jan Fredrik Hovden has just finished his Dr. Polit. on journalism and the cultures of journalists: Profane and Sacred: A Study of the Norwegian Journalistic Field. In his work he interviews journalists in order to understand their practice in relation to the concept of "social fields" by Bourdieu:
The first objective of this thesis is thus to study the practices of Norwegian journalists (how troublesome this word is going to be!) as located in and structured by a social field, using the theoretical tools and empirical investigations Bourdieu has made of other social fields as guidelines. In this way, this thesis is a contribution to the debate on the role and function of journalism in the public sphere and the understanding of journalistic practice more generally.

With Pierre Bourdieu as his model, guide and inspiration, Jan Fredrik has embarked on a long and painful project, as ambitious as it is important: To understand how Norwegian journalists practice their job. He has spent more than four years on this, an amount of time no Norwegian journalist can afford to spend on understanding a case. He has collected the facts systematically and from a very large number of sources:

In contrast to what seems to be the case for most prosopographic
analyses of social fields, the field analysis in this thesis is not based on (secondary) data of known individuals (e.g. biography collections), but on anonymous data collected by a survey questionnaire to a sample of Norwegian journalists and editors in 2005 (cf. appendix 1 for more details). Such an anonymous/survey-approach to the construction of the field – if with its own share of methodological problems – has some compensations, making it possible to incorporate a large number of individuals and variables in the analysis, which for example makes it feasible to include both dominated and dominating agents in the same field analysis.

Jan Fredrik Hovden has not only done the work, but like a good sociologist (and he is good, no doubt about it when you read his work) he also opens his methods up for criticism by publishing those. When did a journalist tell you how they made the decision to use this source and not that? When is there a methodological discussion attached to the article you read? When do you hear about the phone-calls, the strategies, the discussions about how to find and confirm a "case"?

One of the few times you do that in Norwegian journalism is actually in the much despised and deputed book "En helt vanlig dag på jobben" by Håvard Melnæs, former journalist in Se og Hør, a weekly magasine concerned with the lives of Norwegian "stars" (in a very loose sense of the word). Without any comparison to the work of Jan Fredrik Hovden, "A Regular Day at Work" by Melnæs was received as a betrayal. Melnæs describes how he cultivated the father of princess Mette-Marit, the commoner and single mother wife of crown prince Håkon of Norway. In this work he also describes the culture among the journalists and editors, and the lengths to which they were willing to go for a "case", up to creating cases themselves by arranging weddings and parties and paying for vacations and other services offered the subjects of their journalism.

Jan Fredrik Hovden's work is specifically not a subjective one-person view on an extreme case, as Melnæs' biography is. Hovden comes out of a tradition where access to his material and methods is as important as the conclusions. Exept for the anonymity of his sources the material he builds on is available for his critics, and others may check if they want to draw the same conclusions. And while journalists have the desk to read through their material and check if it is worthy of publication, Jan Fredrik has had three professors read and think through and criticize each word of his thesis, not in 10 hurried minutes while more cases scream for attention, but after months of deliberation.

So, how do the journalists receive his work? By claiming that academics have no substance to their criticism. As Per Edgar Kokkvold, general secretary of the Norwegian press union, says:

– Det er all grunn for mediefolk å være åpne for kritikk, og å engasjere akademikere til å se på om rollen som den lille manns forsvarer tas alvorlig nok. Jeg har ikke noen kvalifiserte synspunkter på dette. Men denne avhandlingen og andre rapporter om hvordan mediene utøver sin makt, og hvordan de retter et kritisk søkelys på alle maktinstitusjoner, viser at vi må nærme oss akademia og kritikere med et åpent sinn. Det er imidlertid ikke alltid disse har noe å fare med, sier Kokkvold til Journalisten.
To translate and summarize: Journalists should be open to criticism, and engage academics to see if the role as defender of "the little man" is taken seriously. But this and other reports about how journalists use their power shows that we have to approach academia with an open mind. However, not all have any substance to their work. (My emphasis).

So, when a journalist writes about the practice of others, that's an important function for journalism, protection of the democracy and main goal of journalism. When a journalist writes about the practice of journalism it's a betrayal. When an academic writes about the practice of journalists, he doesn't know what he is talking about.


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