Ethnography and journalism

Ethnography is no stranger to media and journalism studies. In fact, much of what we know about journalism comes from the classic newsroom ethnographies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s (for a review, see Cottle, 2007). These studies focused attention on the structural and professional forces at play in the newsroom, for instance, how news production is a matter of managing the unpredictability of news through careful planning and resource allocation (Golding and Elliot, [1979]1999), or how reliance on elite sources is a strategic ritual (Tuchman, 1972) that allows journalists to frame their work as 'objective' and hence trustworthy. The theories generated by the first wave of newsroom ethnography are currently being reassessed in light of the cultural, technological and professional changes that journalism is going through (Paterson and Domingo, 2008; Paterson and Domingo, 2011). However, both past and present newsroom ethnography is rooted in a sociological tradition of realism that has 'emphasized the objective nature of data collection and thus clearly lean[s] toward observation and away from the emic-etic interpretative work necessitated when participation is given full partnership in methodological practice' (Murphy, 2011).

In contrast to newsroom ethnography, the anthropology of journalism (see for instance the excellent collection of work in Bird, 2010) is more reflective in its methods and critical in its analyses. For instance, Hannerz (2004) describes the lives of foreign correspondents by 'studying sideways' a craft that resembles ethnographers' tales from the field. In her ethnography of news production in modern day India, Rao (2010) ventures outside the newsroom to examine the politics of news reporting in a recently commercialised mediascape. Peterson (2003) sees the ethnography of journalism as 'an emergent effort [...] to talk about the agency of media producers within a cultural system while still recognizing their embeddedness in larger structures of power'. Such a view not only speaks to the practices, serendipity and creativity embodied in journalism as the journalist negotiates various sources, demands and constraints, but also to the analytical attempts at coming to grips with journalism's 'cultural system'. In practice, this means learning to see the 'structures of power' that bring reporters, editors and desk chiefs together to construct texts. In other words, this requires ethnographic fieldwork.

 
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