Al Jazeera Journalism Review

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Journalism and sociology; uneasy bedfellows

Adrian Nicole Leblanc was a 25-year old reporter who was been assigned by her newspaper to cover the trial of George, a young Puerto Rican accused of drug dealing and robbery. The reporter was working in the Bronx, a bureau of New York City which experiences the highest rates of poverty and crime.

Leblanc gets to know George’s sister and girlfriend, and over a 12-year period they become fast friends. The intimacy of their friendships let Leblanc get closer to her sources’ real lives in all their unflattering details, full of drugs, misery, and Latin music which induced nostalgia for the lands they had left behind.

Leblanc eventually became a part of the neighborhood, witnessing and experiencing the urban transformation of the Bronx as it happened. She was there to witness the era of prosperity as drug money started to flow, and she was there when the arrests began, tearing families apart. Along the way she told stories no one else was telling: Stories of families living in squalid conditions, and of immigrants finding themselves at the mercy of poverty and racism.  

Instead of continuing to write ‘objective’ articles for newspapers, she wrote a non-fiction book called “Random Family,” which dealt with the complex roots of the socioeconomic problems which plagued the residents—her friends—of the Bronx.

While reading the book, you cannot determine the  dividing line between the journalist and the sociologist. Moreover, you cannot tell when she is using journalistic tool (description, intuition, objectivity) and sociological tools (interpretation, deduction, deconstruction of relationships).

Should we consider Leblanc’s book a piece of in-depth reportage, or sociological research? When does the work of the sociologist and the journalist converge, and when do they separate?

 

Journalists as ‘rushed historians’

In 2017, I visited a remote region in southern Morocco (Tinghir, Tinjdad) for an investigative report about a tribal conflict that had resulted in abductions and bloodshed. I listened to the testimonials and tried to grasp all angles of the complex situation. A week later, the investigation was published on the newspaper’s front page, with the first line of the article being "facts published for the first time." Though this is the sort of introduction that editors abhor, I believe that article was the final and decisive opinion on that conflict.

 After that, a professor at the Faculty of Arts at Ain Chock University in Casablanca sent a seven page reply to my article. The reply started with the sentence: "Journalism is important, but sociology is more important." The research paper talked about the roots of the historical conflict between the tribes over water and land (one tribe wants to divide lands horizontally, and another tribe wants to do so vertically). The professor presented a different thesis, and while I cannot say that the paper uncovered new knowledge per say, it definitely shed a new light on the investigation by focusing on the root, historical causes of the tribal conflict.

 The reductionist nature of journalism has always been part of the struggle between the two major disciplines. On the one hand, journalism is trusted with framing public events, and often falls to the temptation of publishing news as fast as possible under the justification of being the first to break the news to the masses. On the other hand, sociology is seen as an elite science which needs time and an elaborate artistic flourish, something entirely different from "the speed of the press.” This difference in speed and resources allows the press to publish facts first, but often in a way divorced from their socio-cultural contexts.

The battle between the two disciplines has gone beyond the limits of writings and has turned into independent schools, especially after the student revolution in 1968 against the French traditions. At that time, French philosopher Michel Foucault strongly criticized "the transformation of sociology professors into famous men in the media, who present half-truths and full lies.”

Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist, once spoke telling words during a TV interview about a recent French election: “Journalists want to sideline the facts and condense an entire history of tragedies and the ugliness of colonialism in Africa into ten minutes, and the next day they will say: ‘Bourdieu said it all.’ ”

 

Bourdieu was aware that the press is a beloved tool of states to exercise symbolic violence against their opponents. In his landmark book, “On Television and Journalism,” he outlined the demarcating lines between sociology and journalism.

Before Bourdieu, it was widely believed, especially among the “Chicago” school of sociologists, that sociologists had no qualms becoming TV stars. For a time, sociologists would frequently appear on American television channels, furiously debating the merits of socialism versus capitalism. The press was heavily reliant on the social sciences to frame facts, to justify studies or to refute social theses.

With the frequent appearance of social scientists on TV, academic studies began to receive wide acclaim and find a receptive audience among the general public. Here is where a split began to emerge in the academy, as academics were divided on whether or not sociologists should remain in their ivory towers or begin to become more comfortable in the role of public intellectuals.

According to Saeed Banes, a professor of sociology at Mohammed V University in Rabat, the tension between the two fields arise from the same issue, summed up by the following statement:

 “Two types of writing must be distinguished: The first is academic, and the second is journalistic. The first type of writing suits sociology, and is appropriate for tracking sources and reviewing case-studies. This type of writing is suited for descriptions and interpretations based on a methodology and theoretical framework which allows for an objective approach. As for the second approach, this is a type of writing that aims to present a point of view, explore opinions, present news, and share it from a unique angle, based on a point of view that originates from within society. Having made this distinction, it becomes imperative for the journalist to balance the reductionist function of journalism with the effectiveness and utility of sociological methodologies.”

Further, it could be useful to make a brief comparison of the different tools each discipline relies upon for its findings. Such tools include interviews, note-taking, use of statistical sources, surveys and questionnaires, and the use of vernacular in writing.

There is much overlap between the social sciences and journalism, the pursuit of objective social truth. However, “journalists are hasty historians,” in the words of Abdullah al-Aowri, who in his auto biography, said that journalists are inclined to excitement, while social scientists prioritize accuracy in their work. 

Capitalism’s negative externalities

Since the eighties, capitalism has slowly infiltrated all corners of life—and media has not been spared by this expansion. The relentless focus on competition and efficiency which social theorists claim are at the core of the capitalist economy have all seeped into newsrooms and editorial boards. 

Journalism has lost its core drive, which is to inform and raise awareness, wrenched from its founding mission by the relentless market forces which dictate the capitalist world. Instead, the press is directed by the demands of the audience, profit margins and maintaining market share by publishing “entertaining” news. In brief, in its current state, a free and critical press is a hostage of last quarter’s revenue figures.

Accordingly, social scientists are deeply suspicious of journalism. In both the US and France, progressives have been the driving force behind advances in sociology, anthropology and psychology, and their link with media was one of solidarity in a united struggle against oppression, injustice, and militarism.

It is possible for sociologists to be a “friend” of the press, but “interference from the media plays a mysterious role in our profession,” according to the French sociologist Michel Crozier. When a sociologists deals with subjects on a superficial level, perhaps with the intention of communicating with a mass audience, the sociologist can be accused of “cooperating” with the same capitalistic system they so often criticize. Still, sociologists can avoid this dilemma entirely if they choose the media outlets they write for carefully, ensuring they can write at length about their chosen topics.

Journalists have a bad reputation among sociologists, as in the words Phillip Schlesinger: “You might be dealing with an experienced journalist who is well-versed in sociological issues and has good analytical tools at their disposal that allow them to deal with topics without falling into reductionism and superficiality. However, most of the time you deal with journalists who are not ‘smart,’ or you meet journalists who are lazy and incapable of doing research.” 

The media’s increasing submission to the logic of capitalism and its commercial pursuits has a devastating effect on society. In actuality, as objective as journalists try to be, the fact that they are viewing society through a profit-seeking lens means that their writing will condone the same behaviors and patterns that capitalism views as optimal. It is this phenomenon that has driven a wedge between the two former partners in the search for objective truth. As a result, journalism will constantly appropriate tools from sociology and adjust them to their profession, with an eye towards ensuring their profitability.

In describing the relationship between journalism and sociology, we are obliged to mention the work of Howard Baker, which described art as the “collective product of a network of mediums; starting with the artist and the audience, and including the art dealer, the museum curator, and the art critic.”

Does the sociologist exist outside of this network? The answer is probably no, as the sociologist is unable to spread the results of their research without a number of mediators, the most prominent of which is the journalist, who helps convert the social sciences to more practical theories.

The terming of journalism as “simplified sociology” does not undermine the independence of immediate social actions, but rather, it casts light on the roots causes of said social actions.  

Finally, the fact that consumers still listen to radio journalism and read magazines signifies that they are interested in the social sciences, even if the version they are hearing is diluted to a degree. In this sense, both fields are mutually beneficial and can support one another, in both an epistemological and commercial sense. The continued consumption of media and the social science research filters down to its pages allows both to maintain their relevance in a world dictated by the rules of the marketplace.

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