September 29, 2008

What's the Difference between Sociology and Journalism?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

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.

  1. In journalism, time is of the essenceclip_image002

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This does not mean that research is necessarily outdated; sociology is about analysis and reflection, for which we need time.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.

  1. 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 clip_image002[5]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.

  1. 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. clip_image002[7]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.


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I have to emphatically agree on your point about the accessibility of sociology.

Our discipline is somewhat of a torn one. There's the nagging desire to prove that we're the "equal" of natural scientists, and some try to achieve this through positivism and jargon, like you said.

Then we have people pulling in the opposite direction, saying, "How can you be objective? Your claims to objectivity just hide your own motivations and prejudices, whatever they are!" I tend to side more with this group, but the problem is that the writing style that lends itself to this kind of sociology can be pretty hard to understand too. Power is granted to those who know the lingo.

Meanwhile, economists are edging ever closer! I joke, but if you look at the number of popular economics books released in the last few years and the number of popular sociology books...well, maybe I just haven't seen any of the latter and that's my own failure to sample.

I just think we need to work harder to make what we're doing worthwhile. We're not natural scientists, and yes, some research will have to be targeted towards academics, but we need to get out there to the people, like other social sciences have done.

In this event, I have a question. Can good journalism, then, be taken as fair ground for experience in sociological fieldwork?

Comparing and contrasting sociology and journalism is useful not only for students but for most sociologists as well. I appreciate your plug for my review in Contexts: "Writing to be Read." I do find it interesting that you would describe the review as "provocative." In fact, it is little more than the common sense practiced by the best prose stylists for centuries. Your adjective may indicate how far most sociologists really are from writing well.

I am working on an article that attempts to highlight exactly what sociologists can learn from journalists. Public journalists in particular seem to have found some reasonable, working solutions to many of the either-ors that our discipline seems unable to transcend.
Again, an excellent and thoughtful post.

Excellent post! I am a new academic in the social sciences (Ph.D. student, to be exact) and having been a journalist a while back, I wanted to know what the difference was between, say, ethnography and good, systematic journalism. You've done a great job of picking apart some key differences.

However, let me add one more critical element (as I see it) that differentiates journalism from social science research: theory. Without theory, academic research is rather dry indeed and does not contribute meaningfully to the ongoing conversation among fellow researchers. Journalism, on the other hand, does not require theory.

An illuminating read, Karen. Thank you!

I, too, am a new PhD student in sociology who used to work as a journalist for a number of years. Another difference between journalism and sociology, in my view, is that in journalism, your work is a result of team effort -- fellow reporters, managing editor, copy editor, assignment editor, section editor, producer, photographer, videographer, video editor and others all contribute, in one way or another, to your stories -- whereas in an academic research, it seems to me that you (and sometimes your "co-investigators") are on your own most of the time and do not get much input and suggestions from somebody else along the way.

Another difference I find is that journalists write "stories" whereas academics write research results. For example, in journalism, anonymous sources are not acceptable in general. This is very much true when you're writing in-depth feature stories on people (you might say 'ethnographic' stories). You must clearly identify the "people" in your stories with real names, ages, occupations and so forth, which in turn gives those people faces and personalities that you can explore in your narratives.

Many ethnographic research papers I read gave their "subjects" and "informants" fake identities in the name of research ethics, which then made the papers, in my view, hard to read and understand (I can picture John's face in my mind but not informant A's face).

The anonymity also made me wonder how true to the reality the researchers' observations and accounts are, and there is no way for me to go back to the original sources to find out (but in journalism, your competitors could (and would) immediately go to your sources if anything is suspicious).

I know enough about journalism (I have a master's degree in journalism as well) but I am new to sociology and ethnography, so I may be totally off the mark, though. My apologies if that is the case.

I'd never associate journalism and sociology unless I had read this blog. They both operate in somewhat of the same way, operation by a code of ethics so as not to trespass on the rules of society. Reporters can't just report lies to their enormous audience, and sociological experiments cannot trespass on the rights of its subjects.

sociology gives a basis of study for a better understanding in a way for the outer-thinker while journalism can provide a awareness for the everyday reader or for a wide range of topics built into one topic.

In this blog i learned that the difference between journalism and Sociology is that jounalism focus more on tmew and people (worldly)and sociology is theory, data and people. The way you could use both journalism and sociology in they both involve people.

there will always be a difference in sociology and journalism. journalism is mainly about events that are going on. a journalist uses facts to tell a story. in sociology sometimes facts are used, but mainly sociology is based around opinions of a certain person or point of view

You must clearly identify the "people" in your stories with real names, ages, occupations and so forth, which in turn gives those people faces and personalities that you can explore in your narratives.

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