The Obligations of Field Research

by Daniel Kreiss

by Nikki Usher

Today I stood in the newsroom as a much-beloved editor told his newsroom that he would be leaving. It was a surprise announcement- a newsroom memo went out over email with a red ! announcing a newsroom meeting at 4:30 pm around 4 pm. The political reporter I was chatting with conferred with his colleagues and a rumor started… David Boardman of the Seattle Times was leaving…for….academia?

The newsroom staff, including some of those who had left earlier in the day had even come back for the meeting. They converged in the center of the newsroom. Boardman announced, fighting back tears, and then succumbing to them, that after 30 years he’d be leaving the Seattle Times to be Dean at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication. Publisher Frank Blethen, calling Boardman his best friend at the newspaper, told the newsroom he vowed to continue the Blethen family’s commitment to journalism.

I watched. This was my job, right? To watch. This was a newsroom in change. Actual visible change. Leadership change. But I wanted to fade into the background as grown men teared up along my sides, gave weepy hugs, and a teary photographer grabbed her camera and started capturing every image. True to our mobile journalism age, one reporter recorded everything on his iphone.

There’s a lesson here – about the position of the researcher – and the responsibilities we have now, more than ever, to share with our research participants.

In this particular instance in Seattle, I wanted to melt. This was their moment. I don’t want to have this experience seared in my field notes, my memory, my experience of this city. Those few minutes were not observational data to be chopped up into papers, but a time to be respectful of the extreme weight of this announcement on this newsroom. Yet I know I will feel compelled to mention it, and will mention it probably more frequently then I even know now, not because it fits any particular project, but because it showcases the importance of having leaders you can trust through uncertainty. Publisher Blethen talked about how masterfully Boardman had managed painful layoffs and lead the paper from the brink of obsolescence back into the presence of the city (capturing the breaking news story of 2009 for a Pulitzer didn’t hurt). Newsroom morale upon my arrival was confident and proud of the strong enterprise tradition in a snake bite news world.

Were I more invested in the discourse of meditating on the presence of the ethnographer (which now takes on a rote note in many academic sociology books), maybe I’d be equipped to know what to do with this. But here’s the thing that we have to remember when we do qualitative research: we are taking people’s memories, people’s lives, people’s experiences, and we are mapping on to them the patterns, routines, and processes they might not immediately see for hopes of telling a broader story or answering a core question–for research–and putting it into dialogue with theory and literature these people have likely never read or will never ever read.

I don’t think there’s a significant need to ponder the place of the researcher all the time, in every piece, but I do think that we need to remember that this data is not “ours” – it is tied to people, and the stories belong to them. We do not exist in a simple exchange of observation to academic article that dies beyond a paywall. Or we should not.

To me, this means that we have certain obligations, particularly in an age where we can have a more continual conversation with the people we study. I think we owe it to the people we study to share preliminary findings in plain language. I think we owe it to them to publish something in a place they can read about what we’ve studied. It means being present and visible and find-able. It means keeping your participants up to date with where you are in your work as it churns through the process.

I honestly don’t know how good I am at this when it comes to writing stuff people aren’t going to like. I had to send a particularly scary thing to a newsroom that had served me with a huge NDA that my lawyer-wife read for me and then sent me off to someone else for advice. It wasn’t fun. But it was right–the data supported the thesis, it was legitimately collected, I could supply evidence. Everything ended with a pat on the back, and thanks for my good job on a hard topic. I did this post-proof.

I have to send something to another newsroom that I should have sent them earlier, maybe. I felt pressured to over-disclose people’s beats to please reviewers. Before I did, I read and reread the data to insure that it was indeed innocuous support to a larger institutional point  backed up by methodically collected data respectful of people’s jobs. But I don’t love my choice here. And with people coming and going and remembering two years later what they said, was this practical to go back and recheck everything?

Should I do this all earlier? I don’t know. My dissertation was read by the NYT (thank you Kevin McKenna), but not my book draft. When’s the right time to share? Some people never share. I think that’s lame.

Then there is the question of whether there ought to be an intervention point, particularly, I think for things in motion, in my case newsrooms and news “things” and for others, campaigns, elections, etc. I think we owe it to these people to, when appropriate, to use our expertise to inform their work – and this is tricky, but if I see another newsroom using Twitter in a really effective way, and another newsroom using it particularly badly, can’t I chat about the differences with people and suggest best practices, assuming that the end is indeed constructive? [pretend a newsroom has never seen a hashtag for sake of example]. If management has a radically different view that ordinary employees, and this would go overlooked and strategy planned ahead, is an intervention justified?

I am torn here. But I care deeply, deeply about the fate and future about what I study. I am not a neutral observer; I want newsrooms to iterate, innovate, survive, make better products, keep and gain readers. This doesn’t make my research cheerleady or nostalgic (check my work) – but I am a partisan for the survival of the news industry in a myriad of forms – institutional and non-traditional. I think that’s OK, just as I know my colleagues here have hoped for gay marriage bans to fail, or even worked along campaigns.