«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
Taking a feminist approach means being able to put yourself in your participants‘ shoes, to an extent. I found this difficult to do in some cases, especially when I was denied interviews with the editorial staff of The Gazette. I could not understand, for instance, their reasoning for refusing my requests when, in the same breath, they spoke of a desire to be transparent in their daily
ways that would put the editors‘ concerns at ease to no avail; as a result, an important group of voices is missing from this research. More details about our attempts are discussed later in this chapter.
Furthermore, achieving a level of intimacy with forty participants and only six months to spend in the field proved difficult. Several of my interviews lasted more than one hour. Three participants invited me into their homes. And, I made several attempts to attend public gatherings—like Riverfest, the Mayor‘s Open House, and the Main Street Festival—where I might see my participants and reconnect with them. And, several participants followed up with me and continued to contact me, either to alert me to a happening in Laurel they believed I should be aware of, or to connect me with other participants. Still, the majority of my interactions with my participants were the result of our scheduled one-time interview. Because I wanted to talk with as many people as I could, doing multiple interviews with each participant seemed unfeasible, especially when many of the participants—several of whom I interviewed during their work hours—were on tight schedules. In an ideal world, this project would have been on-going for several years, allowing multiple interviews and more frequent informal interactions with my participants; but the nature of completing a study for a dissertation somewhat limited the amount of time I could devote to the field.
However, the interviews that I was able to conduct provided many very interesting anecdotes and perspectives. Though I stuck, generally, to a set of predetermined questions, interviews were conversational and sometimes took
drafts of this research allowed them to be part of the process, adhering further to the feminist ethical model. The next section details the works of several newsroom ethnographers who went before me and from whom I was able to take many methodological notes.
Methodological critique of newsroom ethnographies Newsroom studies have been conducted almost as long as newsrooms have been in existence. In 1950, David Manning White conducted the now classic ―gate keeper‖ study to understand how journalists identify and select news to print. To do so, he asked ―Mr. Gates,‖ the wire editor for a Midwestern city‘s morning newspaper, to save all unused wire copy for one week and to notate every evening for one week why each story did not make it into the paper (White, 1964, pp. 163-164). While the study was not ethnographic, it had a qualitative nature in that it analyzed and categorized the written responses of Mr. Gates.
White concluded that a gatekeeper‘s selections are in fact subjective, and that ―the newsman, as the representative of his culture‖ prints only what he deems true, whether consciously or not (p. 171). This foundational study inspired future ethnographic studies of newsrooms.
In 1955, Warren Breed published a study about the ways newsmen learn newsroom policy. Breed interviewed approximately 120 newsmen at mid-sized newspapers in the northeastern U.S.; all interviews lasted more than one hour.
This study employed ―intensive‖ interviewing within a functionalist framework (Breed, 1955, p. 328). In addition, Breed stated that some of ―the present data
explain the nature or extent of that experience (p. 328). Such an explanation could have provided readers with a more transparent understanding of his conclusions, which stated that a newsman conforms to the publisher‘s newsroom policy because his ―source of rewards is located not among the readers, who are manifestly his clients, but among his colleagues and superior‖ (p. 335).
For an ethnographer, prior knowledge of the subject of study can be helpful in that it provides context as well as intimacy, but also it can complicate things. In Breed‘s case, he did a lot of generalizing, using language like ―thus, despite his relatively low pay, the staffer feels, for all these reasons, an integral part of a going concern. His job morale is high‖ (p. 331). This quote does not refer to a specific newsman but rather to his subjects generally; in one entire section of the paper, he does not directly quote any of his participants.7 When readers are left wondering how much of Breed‘s generalization is grounded in what he learned from his interviews and how much is based on his own personal experience as a news person, the strength of the conclusions is weakened.
Nonetheless, Breed‘s study is foundational for future ethnographic approaches to news studies.
In 1971, Malcolm Warner attempted to replicate Breed‘s approach in three major network television newsrooms. Warner compared his findings regarding policy control in television to the policy control of the press detailed in Breed‘s 7 It should be noted here that there is little regard for gender in these studies, and seemingly no attempt to elicit the perspectives of women by interviewing female reporters (though it is likely that, in 1955, there were not many to interview). Most of the articles make reference to news ―men‖ and, likewise, take men as their participants.
―attempts to re-interpret the present writer‘s earlier analyses of decision making in TV newsrooms against the background of the Breed study‖ (Warner, 1971, p.
293). If readers miss this significant footnote, the comparison between the ―press‖ (which is never defined) and the current data from the television stations could be lost on them. In addition to interviews, which Warner conducted informally, participant observation was utilized across the three networks, though he never specifies for what length of time. While the article is informative, Warner did not quote any of his participants directly. Though Warner utilized interviewing and participant observation, his work failed to meet some of the (now) basic criteria for writing ethnographies, namely demonstrating that a level of intimacy and respect for participants was achieved by allowing them to ―speak‖ in their own voices in the final text. Thick descriptions of participants and their work environment are also absent.
In 1973, Lee Sigelman, then an American Political Science Association intern in state and local government, took Breed‘s article to task. He gathered data through participant observation and taped interviews. Sigelman focused his research on local political reporters to understand media bias (Sigelman, 1973, p.
132). Sigelman refuted Breed‘s conclusions, by pointing out that because Breed only examined conflict in the newsrooms he studied, he ―overstated the significance of conflict between reporter and newspaper‖ (p. 149). Sigelman‘s article provided minimal ethnographic description of his site, but his conclusions were grounded firmly in direct quotes from his participants.
a collection of some earlier articles, was based on participant observation and interviews over a period of ten years at four field sites (p. 9). Making News was hailed as a ―formidable book‖ (Whitney, 1978, p. 804) and a must-read for those studying newswork (Bantz, 1980, p.349). Tuchman‘s study sought an understanding of not only how news is produced, but how reporters decide to cover one story versus another (Tuchman, 1978, p. ix). To discover this, Tuchman took professionalism and routine as her lenses. While researching for the book, Tuchman conducted fieldwork at four different newsrooms in ―Seaboard City,‖ which she described only as a ―metropolitan area‖ (p. 9). These sites included both television and print newsrooms. She highlighted some of the challenges of observing newswork—its around-the-clock schedule, and busy, cramped work spaces. At one of the sites, Tuchman said she was ―barely tolerated‖ because of the literal space constraints of the press room. Tuchman, a sociologist, used many direct quotes and gave voice to her participants, some of whom she named, some to whom she gave fictitious names, though her text could have had even more credibility had she been able to name all of the journalists and news organizations she worked with. In all, Tuchman‘s book was a step in the right direction, offered a fresh theoretical perspective—interpretive rather than functionalist—for studying news via ethnographic approaches.
Also in 1978, Richard J. Gelles and Robert R. Faulkner conducted an ethnographic study of a television newsroom, given the name Channel 1, ―a medium market station serving an eastern city with a population of 400,000‖
seven journalists—smaller than the average television newsroom at the time (p.
91). The study sought to understand time as a resource (as an independent variable) in the process of news production and selection. The authors changed their method mid-way through the study. Initially, they each observed at a different site. After two weeks, they teamed up and studied just one newsroom (p. 92). While claiming to be ethnographic because the data were gathered by field observations and informal interviews with the news staff, the authors fail to provide the thick description of scenes or events and incorporate only one direct quote from a participant.
Just one year later, in 1979, Philip Schlesinger‘s Putting “Reality” Together hit library shelves. Schlesinger, another sociologist, conducted a study somewhat similar to Tuchman‘s although in London. The book, which is the result of more than 120 interviews and 90 full days of observation, is an inside look at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). The author did fieldwork inside the national BBC newsrooms to provide readers with an inside perspective of the BBC (Schlesinger, 1979, p. 11).
Methodologically, Schlesinger consistently incorporated direct quotes from his participants alongside anecdotes from interviews. In the text, he made statements like, ―one newsman, commenting on this chapter, and agreeing with its argument, observed that the above passage was ‗the Bible of hypocrisy,‘‖ suggesting that he shared the text with some of his participants prior to its publication (p. 107). Unfortunately, he did not find it necessary to discuss the
enough as it is, so I will not develop any points about method and the problems of ethnography here‖ (p. 273). The author makes only passing mention of his treatment of sources, which include naming some—like editors, whose names he said fall within ―public domain‖—but not others (p. 255). While arguments can be made successfully for either naming sources or granting them anonymity, scholars should explain their reasons transparently. Schlesinger‘s gloss of this important decision calls into question the credibility of his methods.
In all, Schlesinger‘s book, though not as popular as Tuchman‘s, is another attempt at understanding the complexities of newsrooms and newswork via interviewing and observation. Nearly ten years later, Richard V. Ericson, Patricia M. Baranek, and J. B. Chan (1987) published their ethnographic study of the ways journalists define and shape social deviance, which continued the trend of interpretive investigation and the idea that news and knowledge are social constructions. The lengthy study is based on several months of observation at two Toronto news organizations—the Globe and Mail newspaper and the CBLT television station (p. 81)—as well as ―less regular and systematic‖ observation of and interviews with journalists from many other Toronto news organizations.
The authors, whose backgrounds are in criminology, go to great lengths (unlike many of the others) to explain their methodological choices—devoting an entire chapter to a discussion of ethnography and other social science methodologies. In that chapter, they highlight the strengths and weaknesses of using ethnography and the ways in which they intend to execute the method.
that the core concerns of cultural studies compared to behavioural studies are understanding rather than explanation‖ (p. 77).
Unlike the other ethnographies discussed earlier, Ericson, Baranek, and Chan detailed the limitations and constraints they faced during the research process. One of the biggest constraints they dealt with was skepticism from research participants. They found that several of the journalists were reluctant to participate, wanted assurance of anonymity, and even interfered with the authors‘ research.
To gain participants‘ trust, the authors had to bend and flex, just as their participants did, often by ―offering assistance as a human gesture of reciprocity‖ (p. 90). The researchers reported listening in on conversations in the field to help reporters gather information, calling the newsroom to ask for a film crew on a scene, and making contact with sources when the reporter was distracted with another task (p. 91). Some of the reciprocity, though went too far. When asked to be a source for a story, the authors declined, but they note that ―occasionally we were asked to participate in the ‗staging‘ of television visuals, for example, posing as a travel-office customer using a credit card for a story on fraudulent uses of credit cards‖ and obliged (p. 91). While the first request, serving as a named source on a story related to your area of expertise (which was the case in this example) is acceptable, posing as a source, which the journalists would have otherwise had to do work to find, for example, an actual shopper, for B-roll footage was unethical. These examples demonstrate just how many fine lines exist
instantaneously. But, despite these questionable decisions, the authors did a better job of incorporating direct participant quotes as well as anecdotes from their observations in their text—much more than the other two full length texts of this kind.