What stories do journalists not deserve to tell?
Dr. Lisbeth Berbary, a professor of qualitative humanist research methods at the University of Waterloo, recently posed that question to my community engagement class at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.
In her research, Berbary uses ethnography and narrative inquiry, methods employed by anthropologists. These approaches value the authority of a subject’s voice and use open-ended questions and artistic forms to maintain its integrity.
Early ethnography proposed that researchers could embed, observe, retreat and then reflect the truth of a community for an outside audience. At its worst, ethnographic research reflected the racism and ethnocentrism of the observer. Even at its best, qualitative research is criticized by traditional academics who do not believe the approach is rigorous because it values subjectivity.
Qualitative inquiry questions the entire possibility that researchers can remain objective and represent or capture the truth about things, Berbary writes in her 2014 paper “A Very Basic Review Packet for Humanist Qualitative Research”.
“Rather than allow this inability to represent ‘Truth’ or ‘the real’ to hinder research, many have used it to drive the reconsideration of age-old notions of authority, validity, and reliability and have opened new possibilities for representation,” she writes.
I don’t think journalism has had the same comeuppance, but those conversations are thankfully taking place.
I’m entering into a field where practitioners believe they are owed information and access. My M.A. program in social journalism follows a different approach that preaches journalists have to gain trust of communities and produce news that specifically serves their needs.
It’s an approach I believe in, and one that I know is possible. But I can’t pick every shard of eggshell out of the batter.
Marginalized groups that were ignored or misrepresented by traditional journalists may not want us in their spaces at all. In our absence, they organize their own information networks, celebrate spokespeople and institutional knowledge and track new developments.
And now that we’re knocking at the door with our notebook and a plate of brownies, what need do they have to let us in the room?
That’s why Berbary’s question keeps coming to my mind. Even if I’m committing myself to social journalism, an approach that works to strengthen the relationship between media and its constituents, my intentions can’t alone repair the damage done to community stories in the name of (racist, ethnocentric) objectivity.
I wonder if there are cases where we further an ethic of care by silencing our demand for knowledge and closure. What happens to journalism when we finally admit that inquiry can be invasive?
I think about the unattended listening devices used by The Listening Post Collective, a group that furthers social journalism by giving journalists tools to connect with their local communities. With detailed instructions and written prompts, subjects can engage in an interview without a journalist present at all.
And though I’m inspired by Listening Post Collective’s innovation, the technology seems nihilistic.
I am drawn to Berbary’s qualitative research methods that value context, creative representation and forms that honor the imperfection of applying an outside perspective to a subject’s lived experience. I believe that journalists could learn a lot from moving away from written articles, which put forth a static view of a dynamic community.
It’s well established that truth isn’t found in bias, but its antithesis isn’t necessarily both sides-ism, which social journalists also rail against. The closest way journalists can show truth is to shed light on all facets of a situation — not just the key players and their arguments, but also the environment, the historical context and the life experiences that influence our perspective as observers.
The social sciences and journalism have more to explore together when it comes to assuming that we can tell a story without feelings and a point of view. Instead, Berbary said, we should try to show complexities of the unfinished storying of our world.
Journalists are useful for more than writing and reporting. We’re also conveners, collaborators and capacity builders. I hope that our approaches can evolve to mimic a conversation and especially one that is inviting and open to communities who in the past had their narratives decided for them.