If you think about journalism as a particular culture, it is only logical to study it like other cultures—by going out into the field and examining it at close range. That is why a new generation of journalism researchers has rediscovered ethnography, a tried and true technique from the arsenal of anthropologists. Far from being a detached observer, an ethnographer immerses himself in a particular culture or subculture and keenly observes its everyday practices. In the same manner, scholars are spending weeks or months in newsrooms, describing and analysing the changing nature of journalism.
These researchers are explorers in a foreign land, chroniclers of rites and rituals, investigators of old practices and new patterns. They have left the safety of their academic surroundings and dived right into a culture that is changing hard and fast. Sometimes they are greeted with open arms, sometimes with suspicion, but they blend in and hang out. Once they come back from the field to report their findings, they tell tales from the trenches, stories about defeat and loss but also of hope and innovation.
“During the last ten years we have definitely seen a new wave of ethnographies that helped to better understand the news production routines of online and convergent newsrooms,” said David Domingo, who co-edited the book Making Online News – Volume 2: Newsroom Ethnographies in the Second Decade of Internet Journalism. “There was this intuition that new ways of producing news were not as innovative as we were expecting. Ethnography helped explain how innovation has been managed, dealt with, or resisted.”
Recent books show the spectrum of this approach in journalism studies. For Can Journalism Survive? An Inside Look at American newsrooms, David Ryfe spent time in various regional news outlets. Nikki Usher presents a look behind the scenes of the New York Times in Making News at the New York Times and Chris Anderson examined the changing nature of metropolitan journalism by looking at various news providers in Philadelphia.
However, new interest in ethnographic research is not limited to books nor solely an American context. Recent articles in journals such as Journalism Practice, the International Communication Gazette, Journalism Studies, and Journalism also showcase ethnographic studies of newsrooms.
Academics are facing more challenges in gaining access to newsrooms
Hanging out in the newsroom and observing people, practices and the production of news is not a new phenomenon but it had become unfashionable until recently. First examples of newsroom ethnography date back to the 1950s. Yet, it was not until the 1970s and early 1980s that scholars actually spent a considerable amount of time in a newsroom for their research. After a dry spell in the following two decades, we are now seeing a “second golden age of newsroom ethnography” according to Chris Anderson. However it is becoming more difficult for researchers to gain access to news organisations, as they are more commercially sensitive than just a few years ago. “Everyone is trying to find the magic bullet—whether it’s an app, a way of counting metrics, native advertising. They all worry that if they find the secret sauce, they want to keep it a secret. They don’t want people to see how they’re doing innovation,” Anderson said.
David Domingo points to other challenges when building journalism research on actual observations. The digital environment makes it hard for the researcher to track interactions by email and social media. Another problem, Domingo said, is that so far attention has been mostly dedicated to journalists, but not other areas like marketing or IT departments.
“You don’t want to come off like you’re the scientist and they’re the bug under a glass.”
Even when access is granted, the researcher faces potential difficulties in dealing with his object of study—the journalists. Suddenly the lens turns on them instead of the other way around. “You don’t want to come off as a nerd,” Chris Anderson said. “You don’t want to come off like you’re the scientist and they’re the bug under a glass. No one likes that.” Instead, he suggests, it’s important to cultivate a dialogue.
Both Anderson and Domingo emphasise that while newsroom ethnography yields interesting insights, the changing landscape of news production calls for a wider lens now. Anderson wrote about “blowing up the newsroom” and recommended a closer look at the news “ecosystem”—bloggers, citizen journalists, nonprofit organizations—instead. Domingo champions a similar strategy. “We can’t afford to just look at the professional newsrooms when trying to make sense of how news are made nowadays,” he says. “Of course this is a challenge because the terrain becomes boundless. But if you follow the actors, they will lead you to what’s going on.”
Ethnography often means coming up with more questions than answers
Ethnography requires access, time and tenacity. But, Chris Anderson said, it’s also a question of temperament. “If you are someone who wants to know what it the answer as cleanly as possible and this answer may positively shape the future of news then ethnography is not right for you. But if you enjoy complexity and ending up with more questions than you started with then ethnography maybe is for you.”
pic credit: Flikr Creative Commons Rafael Anderson Gonzales Mendoza