Anthropological research and journalism

I have recently re-joined the world of academia after spending three years as a journalist. As a result I have been weighing up the pros and cons of each and I would be interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts. Below are a few ideas about some of the ways the internet has changed journalism.

The best-seller in journalism has always been the base product, the “facts”. The biggest news agencies, like AFP, Reuters, and AP, sell what they call “pure news” or “just the facts”. Facts come in all shapes and sizes but the most prized facts are those that can earn someone money. Most of the big agencies grew from financial news outlets to general news outlets and financial journalism remains the bedrock of the industry.

The internet has changed the way that we approach general news. It has become more accessible to everyday people, i.e. those that aren’t qualified journalists, in three ways. Firstly platforms such as twitter have made it easier for people to publish information to a wide audience; anyone that is the first to see an event can become a news-breaker through a tweet re-tweet. Secondly aggregators have made it easier for people to find news and distribute it to other people and thirdly comment areas and forums have allowed people to dispute and debate what they read in the news.

Although the biggest news agencies had to adapt to the changes, they were not, as general news outlets, forced to rethink their whole strategy. They continue to produce “facts” and rely on their reputation for doing this the quickest and the most accurately to get them through. They continue to sell their facts and their news and there are no outlets in which they can be debated with the journalist who produced them. The journalist remains hidden, his work is uncontested, and in this way the facts they produce retain their status as a pure fact. The journalist’s opinion is final and the myth that the journalist’s opinion is a cut above the rest is upheld.

By putting their work behind a paywall the journalists at The Times have perpetuated “the authority of the journalist” myth, whilst the Guardian has gone the other way and opened up all of their journalism to debate and comment (In this way they gain as much exposure as possible and attract revenue). This brings their journalism much closer to the world of academia where everything is up for debate.

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Comment by Ken Routon on March 10, 2011 at 11:12pm

Hi Nathan, Hi Keith. I realize I'm late to the discussion but want to want agree that I too find this post good to think with. I just put up a blog post touching on some of these issues. Please feel free to comment! 

Comment by Ross Wignall on November 5, 2010 at 7:41pm
Really interesting discussion Nathan. I just wanted to add on the facts subject, some lyrics by Taking Heads that have always talked to me, and wondered if we could start a 'Social Life of Facts' discussion (a la Koptyoff)?:

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don't do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Comment by Nathan Dobson on October 17, 2010 at 3:24pm
Thanks Keith for taking the time to address the issues of money and "facts" so comprehensively. I'd like to add a few things on this theme.

Methodologically, anthropologists and journalists are very similar. They are both in the business of gathering information. They carry out interviews, collect data, take down stories and eye-witness reports and do a lot of reading. They try to gain access to information that might not be immediately apparent, a scoop or a new way of thinking about things or a piece of subversive evidence. They do this by building contacts and relationships and piecing things together. They are both unavoidably involved in the process of creating this information.

They differ in the ways that they disseminate this information. Anthropologists use the data they collect to support or contradict a theory and then relate this information to a much bigger bank of knowledge; the literature that has already been published about their field of study. The worth of their texts is in their depth as well as their ability to somehow further human knowledge in their analysis. Anthropological research can take a number of years. News wire (Reuters, AFP, AP) journalists aim to disseminate the information they gather as quick as possible. Their worth is in their ability to get the information out to people as quickly as possible. With financial news, people are better off if they can act quickly on new information.

In a sense they are both brokers of information, they both deal in facts, but they sell that information in different forms. Journalists sell "pure facts" with little debate or reflexivity because they claim to have the information that people want to know. They can tell you how many people died, how big the explosion was, what the local authorities think, etc. It seems obvious to us and "goes without saying" that this is the information that we NEED to know. They pre-empt the first questions you might raise about an incident. Anthropologists sell in-depth analysis, something that you might not have thought about, something that lies deeper, the causes, the reality, a cumulation of the hundreds of conversations that have taken place on the subject. They are prepared to reflect on their own subjectivity.
Comment by Keith Hart on October 10, 2010 at 4:49pm
I find this short analysis very good to think with, Nathan, not least because of your suggestion to compare academic work and journalism in terms of the fact/opinion pair. You bring a fresh perspective to the issue of intellectual authority from your experience as a journalist. The question of money, which academics often bury from view, is also made more explicit.

I find that the comparative method often starts from a point of contrast that later dissolves into a more nuanced analysis based on a clarification of the conceptual issues involved. Thus Jack Goody may make a simple comparison between European and African witchcraft as each other's negation that turns out to be better conceived of as an analytical contrast that illuminates varieites of witchcraft in both regions.

Similarly, I found myself wondering what your basis is for saying that in the academy facts are less important than "debate" (aka anything goes). I started out as a classicist and was frustrated by the narrow range of intellectual discussion where a big deal in literary criticism was whether a letter in a 12th century Spanish manuscript was an alpha or an eta. As is often the case in academic debate, the level of bitchiness was inversely related to the importance of what was being discussed. I moved to anthropology when I discovered there an almost total lack of concern for empirical verification and a willingness to pursue huge questions on the flimsiest of bases. Later the classicists discovered that, if they were to survive at all, they had better let students apply the latest postmodern theories to ancient literature and nowadays the subject is almost as much fun as anthropology. If I had had that chance, I would probably have never switched. I agree with you that contemporary anthropology is indifferent to facts, always rather chasing the latest fashionable ideas. But it wasn't always so, even for our ludicrously over-extended anti-discipline.

I wonder if your suggestion that retreat behind a pay wall increases authority stands up. I used to go the Times and Sunday Times for their oped writers, like Andrew Sullivan and the economist Anatole Kalestsky. All that paying for it means is that don't go any more and my tweets suffer as a result. Equally, money is now a lot more prominent than it was in the ranking of academics: consider the importance now attached to fund-raising in applications for promotion.

When I started out as an economic anthropologist, I found that the easiest line was to be a broker between the two fields, peddling secondhand economics to the anthropologists and vice versa. But I wanted to integrate the two and I knew even less economics than anthropology. I solved the problem by moonlighting for the Economist over a number of years. This allowed me to learn what I came to call 'Economese', how to sound like an economist without any training in the discipline, and to do so in the knowall house style.

I also discovered the importance of facts at another level. I once accused a Glasgow multi-national in print of stockpiling iron ore in order to raise th eprice of some mines it was selling to the Sierra Leone government. They threatened to sue. My editor stonewalled, before demanding the source from me. I no longer had it. I had thrown out my press clippings when I submitted the report. Fortunately, it must have been true, since they backed off. But I never came under that kind of pressure in my academic work. Facts are money in that sense too.


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