July 02, 2005

Ethnography, journalism and interview rituals

Kerim Friedman has two interesting posts at Savage Minds discussing the role of quote-selection in ethography and in journalism.

In the first post, entitled Interviews, he suggests that

One option is to make the source data – the interviews themselves – available to download. In fact, such “grey literature” may eventually become available as part of AnthroSource, but it will not be easy. For one thing, there are confidentiality concerns. How do we make our data publicly available while still protecting our sources? It is possible to do – but it would create a huge burden on researchers. In essence, one might be punished for being a good researcher and collecting large amounts of data, because then you would have to carefully censure much more data to make sure it is safe for public consumption.

I'd like to point out that it's not always so bad. In the first place, you can do some ethnography using material that is already public, like radio talk show recordings, blogs and so on. There are also interviews that deal with material that is in the public sphere (or at least is not intrinsically private), like oral history recordings, where anonymity is not expected and where it's normal to obtain informed consent for publication without anonymization. In other cases, it might make sense to offer an "interview anonymization" as a service that could be performed using special tools and specially trained people; then the burden would be on granting agencies to fund anonymization for publication, rather than on researchers to do it all for themselves as a extra chore.

Some might argue that public-sphere recordings (like talk shows and oral history interviews) engender biases of selection and self-presentation. Probably so, but the same could be said for any other sort of interview; and Kerim implicitly addresses this point in his second post, entitled Vox Populi, where he discusses the case of Greg Packer:

In 2003 Ann Coulter suggested that the New York Times had made him up because she found over a hundred posts where he was quoted “as a random member of the public.” Well, it turned out that he is in fact a real person, and that getting quoted by the press is his hobby. NPR’s show On the Media interviewed him this past weekend, and he still seems to be doing the same thing, despite a memo by the Associated Press management telling their reporters to avoid him.

It made me think about ethnographic Greg Packers. Like reporters, anthropologists often end up speaking to those informants who like speaking to us. I know that some of my informants have since ended up meeting other anthropologists working in the area, although I don’t know if they ended up in their dissertations or not. I have also twice had the experience of suddenly recognizing the description of another anthropologist’s informant as a mutual friend.


Because anthropological sources are usually pseudonymous, it isn’t possible to trace our Greg Packers across ethnographies, so we’ll never know how many of them there are.

Kerim links to an NPR "On the Media" interview with Greg Packer (mp3, transcript).

BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's a certain kind of story that calls for a few words from the man on the street, but for every time reporters call on a local man or area resident, there are a bunch of responses you never hear, such as "Please leave me alone," or "Get lost," or "How much will you pay me?" But if finding a willing voice is a problem for journalists, Greg Packer has provided the solution for more than a decade. In the last 10 years, he's been quoted at least a dozen times by the New York Post. He's been quoted at least 14 times by the Daily News, most recently just last week. He was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution two weeks ago. And Packer has been quoted or photographed at least 16 times on separate occasions by the Associated Press. But who's counting? Actually, Packer is.

There are other Greg Packers out there among the experts that journalists use to get quotes on political, financial or other specialized topics. Journalists quickly learn who can be counted on to return a call and "give good quote". Willing sources soon learn what sort of thing journalists want to hear, and will gladly trade a few minutes of their time for yet another mention in the press as an expert on X.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 2, 2005 01:39 PM