Ways Qualitative Research Can Answer “The Why” in Journalism

Entrance to the Rose Room at New York Public Library — photo by Kristine Villanueva

I can still remember my first day in my advanced reporting class at Rutgers-University in Newark, New Jersey. Anyone who took reporting classes might be familiar with the the 5 w’s of a news story— who, what, when, where and why. My professor, now lifelong mentor, taught me that the “why” is critical to any journalistic work and is sometimes overlooked. Why am I covering this and what do I hope will result from my coverage? As Annemarie Dooling of Racked said via Twitter, “journalism in which we don’t care what users do after they see our content, as long as new eyeballs arrive, is why readers don’t trust us.”

Now a student studying social journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate school of Journalism, my cohort and I are learning ways to put the “why” in the center of the conversation. But qualitative researchers have been doing this since the start. It was only fitting that Dr. Alison Happel-Parkins from the University of Memphis spoke to my community engagement class about this very topic. And my classmates have written largely about their thoughts about how journalists can benefit from their knowledge.

Angelo Paura and Melissa DiPento both agree in that journalists can use the research practices Happel-Parkins told our class and make them applicable to their work. Alongside talking to people, understanding diversities and coming up with a story, learning how research methodologies and philosophies inform a journalists work can be very illuminating.

Epistemology — or how you know what you know — is the foundation of the research process and can help journalists understand their own biases and how that affects their work. During this process, researchers come back to their subjects with the data they’ve acquired and ask them if they are being represented accurately. While journalists should still make their own judgements, there’s room to take up this practice more often to maintain accuracy. Journalists and people in social sciences use many of these methods already. Charles Michio said, “it seems like cultural anthropology and journalism is a venn diagram with a fat middle.” I think this is also true across disciplines.

Jennifer Groff cites one example in which qualitative research can help in the realm of activism and education. Claudia Cojocaru was trafficked by extreme force in Romania and a second time in Japan, Groff explained. Now an activist and scholar, she examines the abolitionist movement through an auto-ethnographic lens or applies her personal experience in the context of larger conversation of human trafficking. Here, the “why” is apparent — that is something journalists can takeaway from people like Cojocaru and Happel-Parkins. Similarly, Viktoria Isabel M. now sees herself as both a journalist as well as a qualitative researcher, tackling the issues surrounding the emotional abuse community. As social journalists, we can go further and continue to engage the communities we serve throughout the reporting process.

Maria Fraschilla pointed out Joy Mayer’s definition of three kinds of engagement: outreach, conversation and collaboration. Max Resnik spoke about his excitement surrounding the upcoming Collaborative Journalism Summit, so the conversation is definitely moving in that direction. Of course, qualitative researchers have long been collaborative in their process. Laura Calçada found one type of qualitative research, radical action research, particularly striking for this reason. She explained that this type of research is done with participants rather than on them. Listening to audiences and community needs can be beneficial in informing a journalists’ work. In this way, a fusion of journalism and qualitative research can perhaps help bring the trust back in media.

Ghita Benslimane mentioned my school’s initiative to do exactly that. The school did a Facebook live session on their $14 billion project. During this session, Benslimane asked, “What’s the most important thing news organizations need to pay attention to when it comes to achieving credibility?” The answer: more transparency about what our biases are, giving original sources…being more open with your audience.” Sebastián Auyanet puts it very clearly — “lets face it: the classic journalistic routine regularly fails at preserving the credibility of the journalist and his attempt to serve his readers.” If we look at transparency through the auto-ethnographic lens and epistemological standpoint — that is, how we know what we know — we can recognize our prior experiences and use them to create more informed journalistic works.

Journalists must look beyond their disciplines to better understand the “why”. We do this for impact. We do this for change. We can only do that if we answer this last “w” first.