2000 Sigma Delta Chi Awards: Research about Journalism

By Ettema, James S. | The Quill, June 2001 | Go to article overview

2000 Sigma Delta Chi Awards: Research about Journalism


Ettema, James S., The Quill


Improving

the news

The history of journalism reveals few research breakthroughs. From the rise of the penny press to the arrival of the Internet, the form and content of the news has changed greatly. That change, however, has been driven far more powerfully by forces acting on the news business changing markets, technologies and competitors than by compelling new ideas about how best to report the events of the day.

This reality is the source of an occasional anxiety attack among those of us who pursue "research about journalism:' The 2000 annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication provides an example. With hundreds of research reports on the program, as is the case every year, the organization devoted its first plenary session of the millennium to the question of whether research really matters.

My own answer to the question is that, even if research is unlikely to revolutionize the journalist's craft, good ideas can make a difference. One of the good ideas discussed in the SDX award-winning"The Big Chill:

Investigative Reporting in the Current Media Environment" is the use of quantitative research methods in reporting. While the seed of that idea can be found in the writing of John Dewey and others early in the 20th century, the idea has finally taken root in the form of "computer-assisted reporting." And it has come to fruition in such projects as Bill Dedman's masterful series, "The Color of Money," in which the reporter analyzed bank records and other data to document racial bias among Atlanta home loan lenders.

There is more to my answer. The work of Dedman and other investigative reporters is the topic of my own research conducted with Ted Glasser from Stanford University. For our book, Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism and Public Virtue, we interviewed reporters intensively and read their best stories carefully. Our goal was to present a master class in the reporter's craft. Among the students for that class, we hoped to count many aspiring journalists, but we also hoped to count many more aspiring business and government leaders.

The lessons to be learned from work like "The Color of Money" are about more than computer techniques. There is a larger lesson about how journalism, at its boldest and best, can hold institutions accountable to the public good. Research, at its best, will improve the news by teaching citizens what they have a right and a duty to demand from journalism.

James S. Enema is Professor and Chair-elect of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. With Theodore L Glasser he won the 1998 SDX award for research about journalism.

RESEARCH ABOUT JOURNALISM

Circulation 100,000 or greater

Marilyn Greenwald and Joseph Bernt

Iowa State University Press

The Big Chill. Investigative Reporting in the Current

Media Environment

Investigative reporting.

An endangered form of journalism?

Journalism educators Marilyn Greenwald and Joseph Bernt were concerned about the future of this reporting genre. They had conducted two studies on enterprise and investigative reporting and found that, while enterprise reporting had increased, there was a decline in investigative reporting in metropolitan papers between 1980 and 1995.

They talked to their colleagues, and realized their concern was shared. Together, the two prepared to write a book about the state of investigative reporting and the factors affecting its practice and public acceptance. The result was "The Big Chill: Investigative Reporting in the Current Media Environment"

Greenwald and Bernt edited the book; a group of professional journalists and educators researched and wrote the book's chapters.

The Big Chill' was an effort to better understand changing practices and perceptions of investigative journalism in terms of changing social, technological and economic conditions," wrote Greenwald and Bert

The book provides a history of investigative reporting and discusses the influences of corporatization, public perception, tabloid television and legal issues on the investigative reporting method.

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