In her review article in 1993, Debra Spitulnik writes, “there is as yet no ‘anthropology of mass media’” (1993: 293). In the more than twenty years following her piece, not only have media emerged as a more mainstream area of inquiry within the discipline of anthropology but media scholars outside of anthropology have increasingly approached ethnography as a critical method to scrutinize media processes. The emerging eld of media anthropology highlighted “the necessity of linking media production, circulation, and reception in broad and intersecting [local, regional, national, and transnational] social and cultural fields” (Ginsburg et al. 2002: 6). This emphasis, in turn, enriched media studies both methodologically and theoretically. Today if there is an ethnography of media, still emerging yet much more established than it was before, it is an indirect outcome of the ideological, conceptual, and methodological disciplinary self-questioning many anthropologists undertook within the last few decades. This self-questioning, shaking the grounds of anthropological authority, came into being as a response to the post-colonial world order (Abu-Lughod 1991; Appadurai 1996; Gupta and Ferguson 1997a, 1997b). The post-colonial critique led to new conceptualizations of culture and fieldwork as de-territorialized and multi-sited (Marcus 1995; Hannerz 1998).
Anthropological literatures of media continue to expand globally with diversely located and multi-sited ethnographies. Turkey is emerging as a distinct ethnographic locale as research on media in the Turkish context offers fruitful opportunities to press beyond the current understandings of culture and fieldwork in the anthropological discipline. This workshop builds on and seeks to expand this emerging tradition of media ethnography. In Turkey, the ecosystem of the print, broadcast and digital media constitutes a broad and complicated structure operating on local, national and transnational levels in myriad ways. For example, the expanding network of over thirty national terrestrial television channels seems to dominate the country’s mediasphere, forging the preferences, as well as patterns, of media consumption. Also there are nearly 2000 television and radio stations in Turkey, some of which have transnational ties, and broadcast not only for a local population but for diasporic religious or ethnic communities abroad. Moreover, the growing soap opera industry produces television series, which are imbued with Turkey’s cultural specificities, but geared towards international audiences in Europe, the Middle East and South America rather than a national audience.
In this context, more anthropologists of media are showing an interest in Turkish media, a media system that proves more complicated to inquire about each passing day and is still more susceptible to scholarly exploration. The subject matters of these studies show diverse foci from the politics of news production (Aşık 2015, Yeşil 2016) to popular culture and television reception (Özçetin 2013, Carney 2014, Çaylı-Rahte 2013) from lm circulation (Koçer 2013, 2014) to the urban poor’s use of media (Ergül et. al. 2014) from workplace ethnography (Kartarı 2013) to new social movements (Çelik 2013; Turan and Özçetin 2016). The recent debates (Pink et. al. 2016; Horst and Miller 2012; Horst 2012; Boellstorff 2012; Coleman 2010) on reconsidering the relationship between the “virtual” and the “real” in ethnographic terms open up countless venues for considering various transformations of Turkey’s mediasphere (Costa 2016; Saka 2014; Binark 2015; Yalkin et.al. 2014). Reflecting on these matters, the workshop sessions will elaborate on theoretical orientations, methodological challenges, and future orientations for media anthropology in Turkey. The participants will be encouraged to make an original contribution to the re-definition of culture and to fieldwork within the national and transnational context of the media ecosystem in Turkey.
Suncem Koçer Çamurdan
Suncem Koçer received her double PhD in Anthropology and Communication & Culture from Indiana University in 2012. Her research interests revolve around anthropological understanding of publics, identity, and media discourses. Currently, a member of the Communication Faculty at Kadir Has University, she has been teaching media anthropology, lm and ethnography, persuasion and propaganda, interpersonal communication, news culture, and communication campaigns since 2005. Koçer has also worked as a TV editor and anchor between 2011 and 2016.
“It continued snowing all morning, while Ka walked the streets playing the intrepid reporter—visiting coffeehouses packed with unemployed Kurds, interviewing voters, taking notes—and it was still snowing later […].”[I]
This sentence is from Snow, described as “the first and the last political novel” by its Nobel Laureate author Orhan Pamuk. The book created a public debate even before its publication. After having appeared in bookstores in January 2002, it became a bestseller by gaining great attention derived from its provocative content with apparent references to the existing debates about politics in Turkey. Consequently, when the book was translated into English, the translator, Maureen Freely, notified the prospective readers in her review that “how you read that tragedy depends very much on what your politics are and how much you know about recent Turkish history.”[ii]
Pamuk argues that he creates a “microcosm” that stands for Turkey by miniaturizing cutting edge issues to a local story set in the fiction city Kars.[iii] Similarities of this imagined town with the actual city Kars, located in northeast Turkey near the Armenian border, made Snow even more inflammatory for those who engaged in the public debate that it caused. Inspired by this debate, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in 2009 to look at how people living in Kars, who were represented in the book, responded to the cutting edge questions on Turkey raised in this book.
Snow deals with many issues that also attract anthropological curiosity including Islam, secularism, gender, nationalism, and ethnicity. Orhan Pamuk wrote his book between the years 2000 and 2001, and he visited Kars many times in this period. During his visits, he introduced himself as a journalist and collected information from the residents of the city about their way of life. As an ethnographer, while following Pamuk’s route in Kars, I investigated what people think retrospectively concerning the aforementioned critical problems of Turkey from their positions and within the spatial and historical context that surrounds them.
A Kurdish lawyer I met in Kars during my fieldwork, referred to the line I quoted above when he learned that I was doing research about Snow. For him, Pamuk had bad intentions aiming separatism while emphasizing people’s ethnicity:
“What grabbed my attention in the book is that he [Pamuk] says, ‘I went inside a teahouse, I saw unemployed young Kurds.’ He underlines this on purpose. Now, I wonder according to the measurement did Orhan Pamuk concludes whether they are Turkish or Kurdish? We can understand this as locals. We are a family here. I think it is because he doesn’t know the city well enough. [He assumes] that only Kurdish people are living in Kars.”
Although there were many passages about Kurds in Snow, this particular sentence became well known after it had been articulated in a panel discussion broadcasted on TV in 2002, when the book was published. The show was broadcasted on the only local TV station, Serhat TV (or Borderland TV), owned by the previous mayor – who also contributed to the promotion of Snow in Kars by selling it at half price to his fellow citizens. During the TV show, speakers came up to agree that the publication of the book was beneficial to Kars because it would cause publicity and attract attention for investments, which would eventually bring economic development of the city. This argument was indeed the rationale behind the mayor’s contribution to the publicity of the book. However, the moderator of the program did not have the same opinion because he thought that the author insulted people in Kars. He argued that the book intended to divide Karsians based on their ethnic identities, precisely because of the description of ‘unemployed young Kurds’ who spend their time at coffee houses. The moderator was red immediately after the show ended because he deviated from the broadcasting policy of the TV station. I met this moderator, whom I call Yalçın, to learn more about his ideas.
Yalçın was a Yerli, which is a made up ethnic category in Kars. It is constructed when people already living in Kars felt the need to ascribe a collectivity to themselves different from the migrants or émigrés with various ethnic backgrounds came to the city at the beginning of the 20th century, such as Azeris and Kurds. As a man in his 40s, Yalçın was publishing a one-person newspaper (meaning owned and produced by only one person, like many others in the town).
During our talk, Yalçın said that Snow did not have an impact on Kars at all, even though he lost his job because of his opinions on the book. He was against the book because of two reasons. First, he believed that “the book was written upon the purchase order of Western imperialist powers, which are against Turkey’s membership to the EU.” He said, thanks to the book Westerners would be able to argue in the future, “it is not us, but it is your Nobel laureate author, your journalist or your TV station, who confirms [injustices against minorities]. It is not Armenian, not Greek, not Jewish but your nationals!” Second, he said, the underlying aim of publishing Snow was to provoke the Kurdish community in Turkey, which, he thought, was ‘the weakest link’ in the society. However, he was careful to make a distinction between the different Kurds. Referring to the conflict between the Kurdish armed movement the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) and the Turkish Armed Forces that was going on since the 1980s, he said: “When a şehit (martyr soldier) funeral comes to Kars, Kurds, Azeris, etc., pray for him altogether. Nobody says that ‘your fellows killed this man.’ If you go and look, you will see that Kurds are the majority among the participants of such funerals in Kars and they are the ones who cry the most.”
Yalçın’s ‘selective racism,’ makes exceptions for individuals in the process of identification and leave room for a possible dialogue with those individuals while excluding the rest for good.[iv] Therefore, it was not surprising for me to hear that he became a member of the nationalist Worker’s Party (İşçi Partisi) after I left the eld. While making a selection among Kurds, his remark also implies that ordinary Kurdish people can be associated with terrorism when they fail to perform what they are expected to. An example was again a journalist, whom I call Hikmet.
After studying journalism at the university and working for the pro-Kurdish daily Gündem in the capital city Ankara, Hikmet came back to his hometown Kars. Speaking many languages including his native Kurdish, Hikmet started to work as the Eastern Anatolia correspondent of a national news agency. Having no ties with local newspapers allowed him to be outspoken. Therefore, he could cover stories that were not covered before. He openly wrote about the improper practices of local administrators – not only of the elected mayor but also of the centrally assigned governor. Having published in the national media made him ‘popular’ in Kars in a short time. Some of his fellow citizens and colleagues in Kars accused him of being a trained guerrilla. Hikmet did not take these reactions seriously. He was proud that his critically engaged professional practice was a change maker in media practices in Kars. Accusations against him, in this sense, were not related to his ethnicity as a Kurd, but rather they were defensive responses of a kind of local journalism tradition that served to maintain power relations in the city.
During my stay in Kars in 2009, a decade after Pamuk’s observations, unemployed young men were not anymore spending their time at coffeehouses. Instead, they preferred Internet cafés, where I noticed A4 print outs warning with bold capital letters: “It is not allowed to visit websites of separatist organizations.” A decade after my observations, however, what happens to the power relations in the city as well as to its local journalists are open to exploration.
(This essay is composed of excerpts from my unpublished master’s thesis submitted to Middle East Technical University, Ankara, in 2010 under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Sabine Strasser)
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.
Lecturer in Sociology at Uludağ University (Bursa, Turkey). PhD from University of Cambridge