Could academics take on the role of investigative journalists?

Mike Marinetto thinks such a shift viable, while literary scholar Lennard Davis recounts his struggles to stick to the facts

December 17, 2015
Feature illustration (17 December 2015)

The “Deep Throat” investigation that led to the Watergate scandal has long fascinated me. This audacious attempt to expose corruption at the heart of the American body politic is something I admire and envy in equal measure. What a pity that, as an academic, I never get to undertake such purposeful and important work as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did when they cultivated their informant and exposed the revelations that eventually brought down President Richard Nixon.

But recently I have been thinking about whether academic social science could, after all, conduct its own equivalent of the Watergate investigation: probing the plentiful corruption, abuse, deceit and sleaze behind power. In one sense, that is simply another way of asking whether the style of investigative reporting used by Woodward and Bernstein could be crossed with investigative social research techniques – such as ethnography, non-participant observation and in-depth interviewing – to become a recognised new academic research method.

But putting it in those terms is too mundane because the point and purpose of investigative social science would be far removed from the academic industry of knowledge production – of simply adding to the mass production of scholarly outputs. The investigative social scientist would be driven more by the moral outrage of an investigative hack than by the scholastic curiosities of a professional don.

But who would have time to conduct such research? Well, in 1958, Daniel Bell, the eminent American sociologist, left a career in journalism, and a job with Fortune magazine, for a life in the academy. He told Henry Luce of Time magazine that four key reasons influenced his decision: “June, July, August and September.” It is probably true that one of the great appeals of a professional academic post is the provision of paid time to do research – or just paid free time. Sabbaticals and research buyouts offer further time away from the quotidian demands of academic life – teaching, administration and falling asleep in committee meetings. Admittedly, the distribution of time wealth is far from equal (some colleagues have 12 good reasons for being in the academy), but the average academic still enjoys much more of it than professional journalists.

According to Nick Davies’ book on the state of modern journalism, Flat Earth News, the commercial pressures that have built up over the past 30 years to churn out more and more copy have reduced the amount of time that journalists can dedicate to researching stories. The result is that much of journalism has been reduced to “churnalism”: the cursory rewriting of second-hand stories obtained from news agencies and PR companies. “No reporter who spends nearly 95 per cent of the time crouched over a desk can possibly develop enough good leads or build enough good contacts,” Davies notes.

But could social scientists really take up the slack? Those who undergo torture by doctorate are trained in research methods that are geared towards satisfying the requirements of peers, rather than newspaper editors and the general public. However, given the ethical, political and legal sensitivities of investigative work, proficiency with the scientific dictates of rigour, verification, originality, objectivity and authentication would be useful. Students trained in qualitative research would have some of the skills necessary for deep, embedded research, while those trained in quantitative skills would possess the technical attributes needed to uncover the sort of fraud and legal irregularities that are endemic in the financial sector (but rarely, as things stand, get named and shamed by business and finance academics).

Investigative social scientists would also need to redefine their professional socialisation and training. Take theory, for instance. According to psychologist Murray Levine, distinguished service professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo and one of the few academic social scientists to actually entertain the possibility of investigative reporting as a research method, theory removes the researcher from issues of direct interest. And in his recent book on academic writing, Michael Billig, professor of social sciences at Loughborough University, argues that much of the theoretical work in the social sciences is devoid of any linguistic, let alone conceptual, clarity. But this does not mean that there is no room for theory within investigative social science. Bernstein and Woodward, according to Levine, worked with a sort of mid-range structural theory of how organisational processes and bureaucratic hierarchies corrupted behaviour, which helped to make sense of the mass of disconnected information and guide their investigation.

Investigative social scientists would also need to unashamedly reject any notion of balance or objectivity. A bias towards the interests of the weakest and most vulnerable and an unqualified contempt for power and the powerful would be a moral and intellectual necessity. Admittedly, most journalists espouse a professional commitment to objectivity (even if that is not always borne out in practice), but investigative journalism operates with a default suspicion that not all is as it seems and that the powerful have something to hide. Instances where professional social scientists have willingly distanced themselves from their professional role to assume a more political approach to research are few and far between. There are, however, some notable examples. University of Minnesota professor Carl Elliott, admittedly a bioethicist rather than an orthodox social scientist, has conducted investigative work into medicine and big pharmaceutical companies in the US. His 2010 book White Coat, Black Hat is an exposé of a system in which corruption and manipulation are standard practice, from gun-for-hire academic ghostwriters who pen positive journal articles for drug treatments, to senior medics who act as “independent” (paid) spokesmen for drug manufacturers.

Then there is Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of medical anthropology and sociocultural anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, who has conducted a new form of anthropology into the illicit market for organs — work that has seen her dubbed the “organ detective”. Scheper-Hughes has used her anthropological know-how, honed while researching families in Brazil’s shanty towns, to conduct undercover ethnographic work into a global black market that connects impoverished donors to a subterranean network of the rich, powerful and unscrupulous. For Scheper-Hughes, the project was an opportunity to show how a professional anthropologist could have a real-time and concrete impact on an ongoing and grave injustice – although, according to a 2014 article in Pacific Standard, “The Organ Detective: A Career Spent Uncovering a Hidden Global Market in Human Flesh”, few people are taking notice of her work.

In the UK, there are also some emerging instances of investigative methods in certain corners of social science. The work of David Miller, professor of sociology at the University of Bath, is worth mentioning. He has been conducting investigative research into corporate lobbying and the use of spin and PR by companies. He is also the editor of the wiki Powerbase – a monitoring service of power networks – and is currently co-editing an essay collection, Researching the Powerful: Public Sociology in Action, which makes a case for the investigative method as public sociology in action.

But if it is to take off, investigative social science needs more practitioners who are prepared to distance themselves from the professional conventions, expectations and aspirations of modern academia. Literature and sources, for instance, need to be treated less as means to getting published and more as means to develop lines of investigation. And any ensuing revelations would need to be communicated outside the limited-circulation academic publishing system, which typically favours the kind of narrow and parochial papers that chalk up professional points but are responsible for shrinking the world rather than changing it. Better to advance public understanding through the platforms that offer the maximum possible exposure – with online, open access spaces being the obvious go‑tos.

One other issue, which even the investigative social scientist cannot avoid, is how to negotiate ethics committees. Here, we could learn from money-laundering criminals and create a “shell” research project, whose true intentions are hidden behind an innocuous-sounding abstract. Such an approach would allow investigative-style research to get past committee members who may feel squeamish about approving studies that may involve a degree of deception or subterfuge.

But mightn’t such close-to-the-wind investigations also incur legal risks, for both researchers and their institutions? This is where cultivating links with practising investigative journalists and their professional networks could prove invaluable. As well as offering advice on the legal niceties of investigative reporting, journalists could also teach academic investigators other tools of their trade, such as how to find informers and how to explore reports and records.

Even with the legal risks minimised, the professional risks associated with investigative social science would remain. But such a career reorientation would invigorate with a new sense of purpose all those social scientists who feel trapped in the scholastic hamster wheel that is academic publishing, and who have an existential urge to do more with their academic existence than frittering it away networking on the hollow peer-dating circuit of conferences, seminars and workshops. While the Nixons of this world would not sleep comfortably at night in such a brave new academic world, the Dr Woodwards and Professor Bernsteins on their trail surely would.

Mike Marinetto is lecturer in business ethics at Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University.

Feature illustration (17 December 2015)

True story: Donning the journalistic straitjacket

When an editor at Beacon Press asked me to write a book about the Americans with Disabilities Act for its 25th anniversary, I had serious doubts about my ability to do so. As an English professor, I am allowed to be quite inventive in my work. I can run with an idea and push it for all it is worth, even when it is based on archival research. For the new project, I would have to abide by the rules of journalism and history, which insist on strict evidence and facts.

As someone who teaches and researches in disability studies, I well remember the series of activist moments that seemed to lead to the passage of the bill in 1990. The culminating event was what is referred to reverentially as “The Capitol Crawl”; this is the story that galvanises the activist imagination and is handed down in disability history courses.

The story goes like this: although some in Congress wanted the ADA passed, the majority resisted. People with disabilities had had enough! Demonstrators from all over the US converged on Washington DC and marched from the White House to Capitol Hill. And then came the iconic moment when those with mobility impairments abandoned their wheelchairs and scooters, dropped their braces and canes, and crawled slowly and dramatically up the 100 steps of the Capitol Building.

Confronted by this, Congress realised that it had to act. The bill passed quickly and was signed by President George H. W. Bush in the largest Rose Garden ceremony in US history. It is a damn good tale, and my intention was to write a book showing how disability activism and consciousness reshaped America.

Turning first to the Congressional Record (the official record of the proceedings and debates of the Congress), I soon realised that it is not a very good source. Basically, it is a collection of pre-written speeches, often produced not by the politicians themselves but by their staff. It feels like a gigantic echo chamber, in which the same points are made ad infinitum.

I went on to interview more than 50 individuals for the book. But I began to see that very few people have detailed memories of the past. Only three had written diaries or kept notes. And each demographic has its own areas of recollection. The politicians are great at remembering one shining moment, terrific at talking about the personalities involved, but not so good on what actually happened. The activists are tremendously motivated by their commitment, and have specific memories of being on demonstrations, but do not really have a sense of the exact progress of the passing of the bill. Politicians’ staff members were the best on recalling the minutiae – many of them drafted the legislation and lobbied on its behalf. But they often lived in the weeds of technical details, and were less helpful in presenting the big picture.

So what was I to do? As a literary scholar, I could have discussed the polysemousness of their texts, the way that Rashomon-like testimonies shaped different worlds. I could have talked about the postmodern sense of language and its limitations and prejudices. I could have written a damn good book that only a handful of like-minded people in the humanities would have understood. The vast majority of potential general readers would have stopped after my first mention of Barthes, Derrida and Deleuze.

In my new role as journalist and historian, however, I had to write about what actually happened, not just versions or interpretations of it. And the story I was discovering was not the one I had wanted to tell.

Regarding the Capitol Crawl, I realised that the demonstrators had essentially been called in when wheelchairs on the ground were needed. The real deals were accomplished behind a curtain drawn by a very small inner circle. The idea that Congress was dragging things out was exaggerated. There was almost no doubt that the bill would pass, and it did so by an overwhelming majority. The problem was not that Congress did not want to listen to people with disabilities, it was simply that it had to go through the laborious process of setting up the hearings. The wheels of justice grind slowly.

Even the oil with which the demonstrators thought they were greasing the gears was actually not doing much. At the very moment they were crawling up the steps, the bill was being voted on in the Energy and Commerce Committee – passing by 40 to three – along with 10 other bills that it had on the table that morning.

That is a hard thing to have to tell all the people who really believe that the crawl helped. I knew that many of them would be angry. But although such events may serve as powerful builders of community, the journalist or historian has to stick to the facts: stubborn, if elusive things.

Now that the book is out, I am getting phone calls from some of the people involved. One wants me to change what I say about his political leanings; another to correct the type of desk on which he wrote an important document; a third would like me to delete an expletive he used; a fourth to say he was only joking in a quote I have used. As a literary academic, much of this is interesting and unfamiliar to me: when I write about Charles Dickens, he never complains.

Lennard J. Davis is distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent book is Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights (2015).

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Reader's comments (1)

There are great professional risks involved in what the Sociologist Robert K Merton referred to as not just "muck-raking" but "muck making" in his research into the area of priority and claimed multiple independent discoveries in science - particularly when society and elite social institutions are in what anther great sociological genius Stanley Cohen called "states of denial". Journalists - if not their editors - were once thought to be capable of boldly dig for the truth at the expense of the reputations of others. But how many academics dare tread that path? And if they do, say 100% prove that entire academic industries have been making their fortune on the back of newly proven fallacies do not expect that the peer-reviewers and publishers making their money in that industry will embrace and promote the new disconfirming data for their mere unevidenced 'knowledge claims' - they will engage in a state of denial. With no journalists worth their salt to reveal the truth to the public, all we have left today is social media, blogs and websites. Will it be enough for the truth to ut?

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