Friday, 14 August 2009

Journalists under the microscope

One surprise to me when I started my research was how big the gap was between what academics wrote about journalism and journalistic practice and what I knew from experience actually happened in a newsroom. I've blogged about this before but I'm coming back to it because I've spent the last week reading the small number of ethnographic studies carried out in newsrooms, in which academics actually spend significant amounts of time in a newsroom absorbing and questioning what goes on, as opposed to just dropping in and carrying out interviews. Valuable though the latter is (and I'll be doing interviews as part of my field work later), ethnographic studies must provide a deeper insight, especially for academics who have never worked as journalists. As ethnographers suggest, such studies provide important insights into the process of journalism, as opposed to the end product.

But with a few honourable exceptions, including my colleague at Brunel University, Sarah Niblock, ethnographies seem thin on the ground, especially in the UK. Why is this? Money, possibly. It's pretty difficult to spend months in a newsroom if you have to earn a living at the same time (a problem I'm already confronting when thinking about the shape of my research). A generous chunk of external funding, of the sort US academics seem to be able to access, is very helpful. Time, definitely. And access. Many academics haven't had the newsroom contacts necessary to persuade journalists to let them observe and interrogate them for long periods of time. But as Niblock and Machin (2006) suggest, this is changing as more journalists move into the academy bringing with them useful contact books and access to newsrooms

This must be a good thing.

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