It’s not uncommon for students to ask me this question, particularly after reading a selection from ethnographic research. In my opinion, good journalism and good sociology have a lot in common, but there are important distinctions. Some excellent sociological work is actually done by journalists— Barbara Ehrenreich comes to mind—and journalists occasionally use sociologists as sources for analysis or for context for their stories.
The following points are not exhaustive, nor are they intended to be a set of rules, but they do provide a general guide to the distinctions between sociology and journalism.
One of the purposes of journalism is to let us know what happened that day, or increasingly what is happening right now. Sociology has the luxury of time: if you ever noticed, research published in journals was typically conducted at least a year earlier. And if a study is based on a large data set, say from the census or another government agency, it is likely to be at least two to three years old.
This does not mean that research is necessarily outdated; sociology is about analysis and reflection, for which we need time. Journalism often includes analysis, but rarely are stories reflected on years later unless they are major events, like the attacks of September 11th or the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
- In sociology, data collection is systematic and grounded in theory
Have you ever seen a news segment where they ask passersby on the street about an event of the day to try and grasp public opinion? While this might give the appearance of a random sample, it certainly is not. What street are the reporters standing on, and when? What kinds of people might be available for interviewing, and who might not ever go into that area? Who is willing to appear on camera, and who is not?
When I have taught research methods we talk about this, and there are always a few people who insist that this is as good a way as any to find out what “average” people are thinking. While such on-the-street interviews might add some color to a story, sociologists tend to employ more rigorous sampling methods.
In one study I worked on years ago, we purchased the customer list from a utility company and selected every fourth household to participate in the study. Is this a perfect, fool-proof method? Of course not. Some people might have had their gas or electricity cut off, and as we found out, the list provided addresses that did not exist.
Conducting ethnographic research is a lot like in-depth reporting, although sociologists tend to spend much longer with a group that journalists might (although this is not always the case). Journalists spending time with a group in their everyday environment might also incorporate information about the broader context, but sometimes the purpose is just to better understand what it is like to be in their shoes.
This is true of sociological research too, but more often than not sociologists attempt to connect their findings to a theory, or sometimes they create one of their own based on their findings. Yes, journalists might bring in theories too, but this is less common than in sociology.
- Journalists’ work is aimed at a wide audience
Just as I often think journalists can include more contextual information in reporting, sociologists can learn a lot from how journalists present their findings. Journalists do focus on different audiences and thus go into varying levels of depth; for instance, on television the local news has a different target than Charlie Rose, and in print the Wall Street Journal’s coverage varies from USA Today’s. If you have read the two newspapers you can spot the difference right away. Even if journalists focus on a niche audience, it is almost always larger than the audience sociologists tend to write for.
Monte Bute wrote a very provocative review in Contexts, a sociology magazine that aims to reach a larger audience than just sociologists. He describes a study that found in recent decades, articles published in major sociology journals have become more jargon-filled and less accessible to general audiences. The attempt to solidify sociology’s stature in social science has had one major downside: it makes for dry reading and therefore has a limited audience.
I know for some people, and perhaps for some research, this is just fine. But sociological thinking should not be out of reach, and should instead become more available to the public. One way to do this is to promote writing that is engaging and informative without being overly superficial. It takes years to unlearn the tendency to write in the passive voice, to remove all traces of the author’s voice and use enough jargon to prove that you know the lingo. Ethnographers tend to also write well, as if losing the pretense of total objectivity gives one license to tell a good story.
Journalists and sociologists have a lot to learn from one and other. Hopefully in the future journalists will make greater use of sociological research and thinking in their reporting and will also provide their readers with a greater understanding of the general context that informs their stories. For this to happen, sociologists have to broaden our scope and target our findings more generally, and yes, we also need to become better at communicating our ideas. Both journalists and sociologists study who, what, where, when and why; it’s the “how” where we tend to differ.