Ethics Questions for Journalism from Qualitative Research

How would journalism be different if a reporter transcribed an interview, sent it back to the participant, and asked “Does this accurately represent how you feel about the topic?”

And then, for grins and giggles, imagine the journalist changed the story to best represent how a person in the story says they actually feel, after reading words they spoke.

Putting aside objections about the practicality of deadlines, why not?

According to Dr. Alison Happel-Parkins, an assistant professor and qualitative methodologist at the University of Memphis who spoke recently at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, this is a simple matter of ethics in qualitative research. It’s called member checking.

From Wikipedia: “In qualitative research, a member check, also known as informant feedback or respondent validation, is a technique used by researchers to help improve the accuracy, credibility, validity, and transferability (also known as applicability, internal validity, or fittingness) of a study.”

In journalism, it may be good manners to share the tape of an interview, but no journalist would let an interview change the story they told. It would be considered unethical.

Here’s another one.

Something happens to you in the morning. How do you tell that story?

According to Dr. Happel-Parkins, it probably depends on who you’re talking to. You’ll likely tell the story one way to your professor, another way to your mom, and yet another way to your friends. Which is true? Are you unethical for telling your story differently to different people?

“We all package stories in different ways,” she says.

It’s obvious, when you think about it. My grandmother surely told her husband one set of facts, her children another, her grandchildren another, and the ladies in the beauty parlor, another. And no one ever called my grandmother a liar, although to be fair, her stories never degraded into the spectacular spinning we’ve witnessed in Donald Trump.

“Different forms of narrative analysis are interested in how we package our stories in different ways and what our reasons are for packaging our stories in different ways,” Dr. Happel-Parkins says.

I find this all just fascinating because, really, we all do this.

What set of stories are journalists looking for? Typically, the ones that are the most interesting, juiciest, or sensational?

And what happens when a journalist’s stories collide in our living room with the stories we’ve been telling ourselves? Anyone who has seen themselves through a reporter’s eyes will remember a jarring sense of “Is that me?” or “Did I say that?” or “That bastard.”

What happens when people say “I don’t need to talk to this person, I can publish my own story on … [name your social media here] … and get it right.”

Could some of this be part of the current lack of trust in journalism, and the direction we’ll go with the disruptive technology of social media?

Much of Dr. Happel-Parkin’s work is informed by the theories of feminism, with a strong bent towards narrative inquiry, the methodology often used to co-create power narratives for groups traditionally silenced, ignored or misrepresented by researchers.

Brokering the power of the story is an imperative right now for news organizations.

Andrew Haeg, founder of GroundSource, spoke at CUNY J School recently about the transactional nature of sourcing a story. A reporter is always giving a source reasons to tell their story, he says. But if journalists play by different rules, and create relationships to a narrative that are inconsistent with the way people relate to their own stories, why would anyone participate?

One more.

It turns out that qualitative researchers can collect data /while/ they participate in the groups or activities they’re researching.

Step back from that a second.

Journalists in traditional news organizations are not supposed to belong to a political party, let alone participate in the activities they’re covering.

How can a person observe and participate at the same time? Dr. Happel-Parkins recommends jotting memory-jarring notes and immediately circling back to them after the activity.

She says the narrative should “focus on what you can actually see and give evidence for what actually happened. The level of detail should be so great the person reading it should really feel like they’re there. They should understand with all five senses what it was like for you to be in that space.”

Which sounds like a description of fine reportage.

And, I’ll ask, Dr. Happel-Parkins, did I get this right?

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