«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
In all, these works drew more methodological criticisms than praises (Mishra, 1980; Rubin, 1981; Endry, 1988; Savage, 1988), but they offer much that is useful for future studies, given the difficulties of doing ethnography. One of the most noticeable differences from present day ethnography (in all fields) is that the authors of the aforementioned studies by and large fail to write their texts ethnographically; that is, they do not allow their participants to speak in their own voices or provide thick description of scenes, events or participants. Nearly all of these studies were published before the shift in thinking when ―the voices representing postmodern, feminist and multicultural positions‖ became the norm (Heyl, 2007, p. 373). They preceded 1986, a moment Denzin (1997) called the ―crisis of representation.‖ Denzin (1997) himself encouraged the feminist communitarian ethical model, which promoted ethnographic collaboration with participants, empowering them and giving them more ownership over the final text, as well a care-based ethical approach, which values ―personal expressiveness, emotionality, and empathy‖ as well as individual uniqueness.
Such an approach requires that researchers not only employ observation and/or interviewing during their time in the field, but also that they use their data and write the final text in a way that represents their participants and their
the researcher—which is academic in tone—dominates the texts. Because the genre of ethnographies have greatly opened up in the past twenty-five years, researchers now have more flexibility to write their texts in styles that not only complement the study being conducted, but also remain true to the participants, incorporating their voices and stories often and in interesting ways (Caughey, 2006).
The strength of the collection of aforementioned newsroom studies as a whole is, of course, that most of them employ an interpretive approach to better understand the processes of news work. At their respective times of publication, these studies were, in a sense, methodologically experimental. It was not only challenging but also risky for these researchers to approach the study of news work ethnographically, as the social sciences were just beginning to feel their way out of the shadows of positivism and post positivism. As such, hiccups in methods are expected and perhaps even forgiven. But, most importantly, these studies provide learning moments for future ethnographers, whose studies will be better as a result of their predecessors.
The most recent examples of newsroom ethnography—or ―second wave‖ newsroom ethnography (Paterson & Domingo, 2008, p. 3, citing Cottle, 2000) focus on new media production and online news. Chris Paterson and David Domingo (2008) edited a volume of online news ethnographies that offer insights into the work of online journalists. Many of the pieces in the book—for instance, those by Cawley, García, and Brannon—provide narrative description of events in
showing, rather than telling, what happens in online newsrooms. However, one of the challenges faced by online ethnographers mirrors those faced by Tuchman, Schlesinger, and the rest of the original newsroom ethnographers. Researchers are still experiencing barriers to entry into newsrooms. ―The increasing security culture in larger media organizations makes it easy for executives to prevent or limit a researcher‘s access, even when journalists are eager to cooperate‖ (Paterson & Domingo, 2008, p. 8). Paterson and Domingo speculate that this is a result of the ―consolidation of corporate media ownership‖ but acknowledges that little is known about the ―whys‖ for such denials because such experiences are rarely written about (p. 8). In the sections that follow, I detail my ethnographic approach to this case study, as well as discuss the hiccups I faced throughout the process, including being denied interviews with journalists at one of the Laurel newspapers.
Participants—Selection, recruitment, and participation This study‘s primary method, as mentioned above, was interviewing.
Some interviews were individual, some in pairs, and others in small groups of three to four people. Because of Laurel‘s size—approximately 100,000 residents—representative sampling was impossible. However, I strove for depth.8 In order to get a purposive sample of voices, I recruited individuals who ―had experiences, or possess knowledge and/or expertise, that are important to the 8 Many ethnographers consider depth to mean multiple, extended interviews with only a handful of participants. Such depth, however, would not have allowed me to talk with the variety of participants I desired in a six month span in the field. To achieve depth with forty participants, I conducted one-time but lengthy interviews (1-3 hours each) with my participants.
These constituents represent ―exemplars of a wide range of characteristics‖ (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 123). I used snowball sampling, which ―yields a study sample through referrals made among people who share or know of others who possess some characteristics that are of research interest‖ (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 124 citing Biernacki & Waldorf, 1981, p. 141). In total, I conducted 29 interviews with a total of 40 individuals connected to Laurel in some way. Table 1 provides demographic information for the participants obtained from the questionnaires participants filled out either prior to or after our interview. 9 According to census figures, my sample was fairly close to the racial make-up of Laurel. While Laurel is 55 percent white, 65 percent of my 9 Some questionnaires were left with participants to fill out at their leisure after the conclusion of our conversation. I provided those participants with self-addressed stamped envelopes. Three were never returned.
*In all, there were 40 participants in this research; however, two males and one female participant failed to return the questionnaire, so the numbers here add up to 37. The "No response" slots indicate that people who returned the questionnaires left those categories blank.
population, while 13 percent of my participants identified as black. Asians and ―other‖ account for seven and four percent of Laurel‘s population, respectively, and my participants identified as one and 10 percent, respectively.10 My participants skewed old and female. Obviously, this impacted the finding in this research. Those interested in participating in community research were those who felt invested in the community in some way. Had my participants skewed younger, my results would likely have been much different, as I suspect many younger residents in Laurel would have reported not reading the newspapers or being as interested in the community; future research may determine if online community news sites such as Patch.com are better able than ―old-fashioned‖ newspapers to engage younger people in the lives of their home communities.
Recruitment of residents Recruitment of residents was, at the beginning of this research, particularly difficult. I relied on flyers, free Internet advertisement, and snowballing in my efforts to recruit Laurel residents.11 Flyers were hung in three Laurel grocery stores with community bulletin boards, as well as on the bulletin board in the Laurel Library and throughout the journalism building at the 10 My percentages do not add up to 100 because four of my participants provided no response to the race question on the questionnaire.
11 The cost to place a classified ad announcing the project in the Laurel Leader for one week was quoted, at the least, at $145.00. This price deterred me from advertising in the local newspapers, given the fact that I did not have a research budget with which to work.
including several other local Laurel businesses and community centers, but many owners/operators would not oblige my requests. Five ads—posted weekly from mid-January 2009 through late February 2009—were posted in the ―Volunteer‖ section of the ―Suburbs of Washington D.C.‖ Craigslist.13 A message, similar to the Craigslist ad, was also posted to the Laurel Yahoo! Group. A Gmail account
was set up to receive all messages related to the project:
firstname.lastname@example.org. A standard email message was used to reply to all cold queries sent to the email address.
However, participants recruited through the snowball method received more detailed, personalized responses. A landline phone number was also included on flyers and ads for participants without access to a computer. A customized voicemail message provided an explanation of the project, so that participants calling could learn more about the project before leaving their contact information.14 Resident participants were offered confidentiality, as well as the chance to be entered into a $10 gift card raffle if they agreed to participate in a focus group.15 Two of the focus groups formed as a result of the Craigslist and Yahoo! Group ads. The third was a result of a personal connection at St. Mark‘s Methodist, where a colleague in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism held a prominent position; he helped me to recruit participants through his church. A final focus group was the result of snowball sampling from participant referrals.
12 See sample flyer, Appendix 1.
13 See sample Craigslist advertisement, Appendix 2.
14 Scripts of the phone and email messages are included in Appendix 3.
15 Four focus groups were conducted.
Open House—a community event at the Laurel Municipal Center that featured booths from many Laurel organizations—as well as the snowball effect. In all cases, participants were selected based on their residential location—Laurel, Maryland. Participants were not selected or discriminated against based on age, sex, race, ethnic origin, religion, or any social or economic qualifications. To qualify for participation, participants had to be at least 18 years of age and live or work in Laurel.16 The location, time, and duration of the interviews (and overall participation) with all participants was agreed upon and scheduled at the conveniences of both the researcher and the participant(s).
Recruitment of journalists at The Gazette and the Laurel Leader Previous research connections with journalists at the Laurel Leader made getting them on board relatively easy. A letter, sent snail mail to the editor, Melanie Dzwonchyk, was answered within a few weeks, and all members of the editorial staff agreed to participate without hesitation. An individual interview with each editor and reporter was conducted, with interviews ranging from fortyfive minutes to one and one half hours. In all, six interviews resulted from my contact with the Laurel Leader.
Attempts to contact The Gazette were not as easy, as I had no prior connections there. Contact was initiated with a simultaneous snail and electronic letter to the assistant managing editor of the Laurel edition, Jeffrey Lyles. After 16 Residents under age 18 were not included in this research. Late in the field research, I considered petitioning the IRB to include young people, but the process would have taken longer than I would be remaining in the field. This was, admittedly, an oversight on my part; in future research, I will give more consideration to including young people.
County Gazette editor, Vanessa Harrington. After another two weeks with no response, I attempted to contact one of The Gazette reporters, Tim Gelles, whose email address is published in the newspaper. Gelles replied quickly with interest in participating. A week later, he replied saying, ―I was just told I cannot participate because it would be my take on covering Laurel from the media perspective, and I cannot speak on behalf of the company‖ (email communication, April 17, 2009). Dr. Linda Steiner, adviser to this research, and I had several ―debates‖ with the editors, including the executive editor, Lloyd Batzler. One editor told me that participating would go against their ―journalistic guidelines.‖ Ultimately, they declined participation out of concern over the fact that they are part of ―a publicly traded company and [we] need to be concerned about the competition,‖ though they said they do ―want to be transparent‖ (email communication with Steiner, April 23, 2009). Another concern expressed by Batzler was that the newspaper ―had a number of young reporters who are untrained‖ or who have given ―opinions‖ or ―wrong answers‖ when being interviewed in the past. I was allowed an interview with the publisher, Frank Abbott; because he was not directly involved with editorial decisions, speaking with him would not, according to Batzler, violate their policy. While this had the potential to undermine the goals of the project, I was still able to assess the role of the Gazette by allowing my other participants to discuss it, including citizens, political figures, local business people and civic leaders.
Leadership in Laurel city consists of a mayor and five city council representatives. Formal letters requesting participation were sent to the mayor and city council via email. Their executive assistants replied on their behalf and worked with me to schedule the interviews. All agreed to participate with the exception of one council member, whose schedule, she said, would not permit her to participate. An additional interview was conducted with Laurel‘s city administrator, who oversees all communications from the government offices, including the Mayor‘s blog, Laurel Straight Up!
Recruitment of advertisers/business owners Like residents, business owners and advertisers were difficult to recruit.
Several attempts were made to solicit businesses in person, accompanied by formal letters explaining the project, without success. Formal letters were then mailed to an additional fifteen local business owners and/or advertisers at random.
Follow-up emails secured only three interviews. A fourth interview was the result of coincidence; a couple I had interviewed as residents were also local real estate agents, and we were able to discuss their business during our interview.