Developing rapport with journalists during ethnographic research
Developing trusting relationships with study participants mounts a serious challenge for any researcher – but especially for those in their ethnographic encounters with media professionals. When it comes to the “sideways” study of journalists this challenge becomes more pronounced, as journalists are inherently likely to mask their authentic interpretations and genuine feelings – and to do so more skillfully than do other categories of media practitioners.
There is a significant parallelism between ethnography and journalistic activity. Both require the development of rapport with targeted persons, and the ‘extraction’ of true information from them. The issue is that if you study journalists, you have to be ready to deal with people who have already reached the highest level in the same job by working as journalists for ten or fifteen years.
Journalists tend to avoid and even dislike researchers, which stems from a general hesitance to make their newsroom accessible to outsiders. The newsroom is an intimate and exclusive sphere; a space of “dirty linen”. In the everyday setting of news production, journalists articulate their dissident political views, self-denigration, professional embarrassment, and damaging assessment of news culture. That’s exactly why such a research environment is likely to be a minefield for the researcher, who can easily fall into the trap of doing not ethnographic fieldwork but investigative journalism. But you can’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs. If you are interested in extracting sensitive and “spicy” information that makes for more interesting findings, regardless of such information’s relevance to your research topic, don’t be surprised if the willingness of journalists to help you evaporates rather sooner than you might expect.
Journalists can easily manipulate you. If you don’t apply the methodological principles and sensibility of ethnography to your fieldwork, you may fool yourself into thinking that you have extracted some accurate information from simply having conducted a few in-depth interviews and participant observation for a short period. Unfortunately, however, the validity of such findings is liable to be highly questionable. In all likelihood, what would actually happen is that you would return home with untrue or insignificant information – and all this without you even knowing.
So, why should a journalist stop treating an ethnographer as a “nuisance”, and instead, take time out of their extremely busy schedule, while working at the speed of a racehorse, and help you?
Whilst accepting that we probably cannot change the basic nature of engagement between a journalist and a researcher, there may nevertheless exist (an albeit limited) space of possibility for fruitful ethnographic research on journalists, in which journalists embrace our project, or at least collaborate to some extent.
A good place to start is to show a genuine interest in grasping their everyday lives and basically understanding the way they work and why. Second, to gain their trust, you might consider exercising a ‘full disclosure’ policy: never hiding your identity as a researcher or your objectives, and sometimes being comfortable answering sensitive and personal questions, such as which party you voted for at the last election, or to which sex you are attracted.
When you work with journalists, you are constantly under interrogation. This is in their nature; this is what they do for a living. And they can be pretty good at questioning you, and finding gaps in the researcher prole you try to construct and present. No matter how professional you look as a researcher, you should not be surprised to see their eagerness to capture what is going in your actual life. Expect them to keep pushing the boundaries you set between the ethnographic ‘eld’ and ‘home’. So if you want to have access to their ‘journalistic home’, such as the newsroom, then you may need to open the doors of your ‘ethnographic home’ to them. And of course, this kind of approach to fieldwork can create ethical complications. My suggestion is not to give up the perpetual negotiation of concealment and revelation in attempts to ‘go native’ and claim a measure of insiderhood. Rather, it is simply to maintain an open and consistent image.
Last but not least, you might like to leave that tape-recorder at home. True, recording interviews and conversations purely through handwritten notes runs the possibility of missing an important point or evocative detail, or not having enough time to think about what the interviewee says and probe accordingly. But journalists, in particular, those working for mainstream media, tend to reframe their thoughts to suit politically and culturally most convenient standpoint. As such, if they are aware that their voice is being recorded, they will adopt an innocuous perspective.
For my part, when I was conducting my eldwork on Turkish journalists, a political correspondent told me that when all the journalists working on the same beat gather in the national parliament to discuss news stories, everyone sits on their mobile phones to assure others that they are not secretly recording the conversations. A cautious attitude towards voice-recording among study participants is not unknown to ethnographers, but it appears worse in journalists. This is partly due to a wider distrust among journalists and is partly a result of growing distrust between journalists and the public, and between journalists and politicians. It is against this challenging backdrop that the ethnographer of journalism, if she is to be successful, must thrive.