A reporter and a professor walk into a bar.
The barkeep, sliding a menu forward, asks them what they want.
“Give me whatever’s new and delivers a buzz,” the journalist says, smacking her lips and barely opening the menu’s sticky cover.
The scholar pores over the menu for 15 minutes and then looks up, aghast. “Where’s the lit review?”
This opening is what we in journalism call a lead—or a “lead” if you cut your teeth journalistically, as I did, at the Globe and Mail.
The lead is supposed to alert readers to your most important or interesting message and lure them into absorbing it. Please note that “important” and “interesting” are often of equal weight in a newsroom. More on that later.
This fable at the table sheds some light on what the media and the academy can learn from each other so that they can drink together in peace and, in doing so, improve our collective grasp of significant ideas, whether they are social, scientific, or simply wondrous.
All capable journalists operate with a key assumption that runs precisely counter to that which capable scholars hold dear. That is, the less anyone knows or understands about a subject, the better a topic it is for investigation.
Despite what you might think, given the bountiful reports about Justin Bieber’s bangs, this assumption is not a mindless celebration of superficiality. Rather, it is a commitment to unbiased discovery.
The first question an editor will ask a keen reporter who thinks she has a juicy idea for a story is: “Has anyone done it before?” The best answer is: “No, never.” Or at least: “Not the way I’ll do it.”
Reporters want to ask questions that no one has asked and to find out for themselves what’s going on. They don’t want to plant their row of non-genetically-modified beans where someone else has been ploughing (and fertilizing) for decades. They do not want to gather news with a preconceived notion of what they will find. They certainly don’t want to be accused of having a carefully crafted hypothesis that they want to prove. They want to be open-minded and to be seen as open-minded.
John Sawatsky, a Canadian guru of interviewing who has trained a generation of journalists, has said repeatedly that the best questions cannot be answered yes or no.
Open-ended inquiry doesn’t seem to be the norm or expectation in academia. Most research is carefully attuned to what went before. That doesn’t mean it’s unoriginal or incremental, just that scholars like to keep everything in context. They’re aware of what they’re building on, even if it is new. Journalists, however, need to find a foreground that entertains viewers and may not consider the background.
Not exactly the scholarly path. It is difficult to imagine any scientist or other scholar smacking the desk and saying, “Hell, Rupert, let’s just get out there to see what we find.”
Negotiating the distance between those two worldviews can be challenging for those who leave journalism to teach at the post-secondary level and then find themselves pursuing research in a scholarly setting. Our number may be small, but our plight may be instructive to those on both sides of the chasm.
When I moved from journalism to the scholarly world, I thought that my background in documentary and newspaper research would be useful. I was mostly wrong, of course, and found out the hard way.
I embarked on my first research project with a colleague who also had a news background. Thinking like journalists, we chose a multi-layered investigation that had not been done in Canada before. We chose it because it seemed interesting and important, and we couldn’t believe our good luck that no one had done it yet! It was a great angle.
Thinking like journalists, our areas of inquiry cut wide swathes across many fields and disciplines. We did that because we wanted a comprehensive view, not a confining one, and we weren’t sure which sets of questions would reveal the most meaningful results. Let’s ask everything, we thought, and we’re sure to find something.
Like journalists, we avoided expressing a specific hypothesis. To do so would have predetermined our findings and made them suspect by news standards.
You can guess the punch line this time. We gathered our data—rather quickly—and started writing about what we found. The findings were unwieldy but exciting, like driving an overburdened bus on a mountain road. When we showed an early draft of our first paper to a colleague with more scholarly acumen, he gently inquired about our literature search. We hung our heads and said our lit review suggested that very little had been done in this area. I do remember wondering why he seemed concerned.
Then he asked us whether we had thought about which journals might publish this work or which conferences we were planning to attend. We realized that we had mostly thought about how scintillating the findings—about situations in newsrooms—would be to our former colleagues in the media. I actually said that I imagined us talking about our findings on CBC radio.
But the unkindest cut was last. He looked over his bifocals and ever so softly said: “You seem to have no hypothesis.” I suddenly knew how very much I had to learn. As scholars, our goal was not primarily to discover and to share. It was to build on what went before and to add to the corpus of knowledge.
Luckily, there was a happy ending. We were able to grab the wheel, ditch the extra baggage, and steer our work to completion. We did have a working hypothesis—actually several, given the omnibus approach we had taken but simply never called it that. We both knew what we had expected to find but, since we were former journalists, it seemed to us to be very bad form to say so out loud. We were able to tease out the good stuff then interpret and write about most of what we had found. We managed to present and publish, several times, in fact.
This fundamental difference in outlook between scholars and reporters is one that is seldom acknowledged but recognizing it may help us understand each other. Other differences, usually caused by this lack of perspective, are much easier to identify.
• Journalists tend to be generalists. This has always been true but is more so now that the news industry has been so outflanked and overrun by twits and tweets that its future is unknown. In that besieged environment, few are encouraged to build areas of expertise. Yes, some of us do know who the first famous Anne Hathaway was. Yes, many reporters do possess the intellectual equipment to understand the basics of histology or Habermas. (Granted, we’re more likely to know our way around materialism than our way around a microscope.) Yes, it would be great if every news organization had a science writer with a M.Sc. in anything and a film reviewer with a PhD in cultural studies. Sadly, most have neither.
• Journalists have an unfortunate tradition of being defiantly anti-intellectual while at the same time being too proud of their magpie approach to collecting information. It was journalists, remember, who invented the board game Trivial Pursuit. I told an editor at the Globe one day that Jean Piaget had died and suggested someone should run an obit. “Am I supposed to know who that is?” she bellowed, somehow implying that I was a misfit in fancy pants.
• Journalists do well with short deadlines, and they work fast. The best reporters are quick and accurate; the rest are dangerous. Except for magazine and documentary writers, who face their own kind of torment in editing, many journalists may have to churn out a few thousand words a day. Imagine how plump your SSHRC or NSERC applications would look if you did that. The need for speed is what fans the embers of academic anxiety into a flaming fear of media. Journalists talk too fast, jump to conclusions too quickly, take words out of context, and are impatient. I will seem foolish, the scholar thinks. My work will be misunderstood, he fears. I will look fat on camera. (A tip: do not wear houndstooth blazers.)
• Journalists also believe that a deadline is the time when you must produce what you promised. Never later, and rarely sooner. Academics evidently see deadlines as more elastic entities. How else can you explain why it takes eight or nine months to get journal articles reviewed by peers? Just asking.
• Journalists are trained to respond to certain stimuli. We listen for the reassuring ring of “newsworthiness,” that quality that makes developments interesting even if they are not important. Conflict, timeliness, relevance, proximity, celebrity—to name a few elements—can set the bells clanging. A conflict at city hall might be newsworthy, while a conflict that affects citywide garbage pickup probably will be. A conflict between the mayor and the union will be news, but if George Clooney joins the picket line, it will attract full coverage. By way of contrast, the stimuli most likely to activate scholars are emails about upcoming grant deadlines.
Yet, the media and the academy share so much, and from this hope springs for greater understanding and solidarity.
• We both love ideas, and we love to spread them widely. For journalists, this means reporting a development that 300,000 people will read on the front page, and tens of thousands more will read online. For academics, it may mean presenting a paper to 17 people (if you count the grad students who have to be there) in a hotel meeting room in Cincinnati and publishing it in a journal read by 273 experts.
• We both love to analyze, interpret, and share findings. By this I mean that both groups truly relish gossip, although seldom about people’s marriages or ailments or new condos. More likely the talk is about who had to defer a vacation (read: sabbatical), got a raise (read: merit), did a front-page story (read: got a SSHRC), appeared on a CBC panel (same), won an undeserved award (same), or was passed over for a plum assignment involving a trip to Hawaii in March (same).
• We each are a mix of personalities with every kind of brain and every sort of interest, together weaving a rich tapestry. By which I mean a lot of egos scrambled in the bowl with no small sprinkling of muesli. Actually, the variety is probably wider among scholars. My own hypothesis is that although many reporters have university degrees in economics and even mathematics, journalists’ Wechsler scores tend to skew markedly toward verbal, rather than non-verbal, abstract reasoning. That makes them rather ill-suited to writing about the sciences. They like lawyers and actors, though. And actors playing lawyers. I cannot prove my Wechsler hypothesis yet, but if any psychologists are interested in this question, email me at Ryerson. Journalists really like interdisciplinarity (and someone else to help do the lit search).
• We both strive to succeed, we compete for kudos, and it isn’t always pretty. At the Globe, when a Star reporter scoops you, you say, “Oh, I did that story last week anyway.” This is the same impulse that prompts 11 of the 17 people in that Cincinnati meeting room to get up and tell you how you should have done your research—usually in the guise of asking a question: “Why didn’t you….” or “When I looked at this issue….”
• We both seek the greater good and want to make everyone’s lives healthier, safer, more democratic, and more equitable (except for those Bush Administration retirees turned Ivy League business profs who were interviewed in the film The Inside Job and most Fox News reporters). Journalists want to make the powerful accountable and to inform the public by telling good stories. Scholars want to contribute to humanity’s understanding and to stimulate brilliant young minds. Both groups are never more delighted than when they have new insights or new information to discuss.
On this common ground, we can build. Capable journalists understand that their obligation is to the reader and to the truth. They resent you only mildly for “having summers off.” So please return their phone calls and share your wealth of knowledge
Ann Rauhala is an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University as well as the associate director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. She was the foreign editor and columnist with the Globe and Mail, as well as a correspondent and producer with CBC television.