Monday, February 4, 2008

Venkatesh and Kotlowitz on what they owe their subjects

A great dialogue on Slate on the relationship between outside observers (Kotlowitz is a journalist, Venkatesh a sociologist) and their inner-city subjects. They consider their own experiences balancing opposing ethical concerns--objectivity and independence on the one hand; and giving something back to their often poor subjects on the other. And in this research, how does the reporter observe events without shaping them?

These are hard, important questions that all journalists writing on marginal communities wrestle with. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent a decade with a couple women in the South Bronx, seeing them make bad decisions (with bad options) time and again, but still keeps herself out of both the narrative (and, presumably, the events). David Simon is completely absent in the events depicted in The Corner, though in a useful postscript notes that he paid for some things, within ethical bounds (such as cab rides to jobs). In contrast, Barbara Ehrenreich and Ted Conover (with whom I'm studying) place themselves himself in their narratives, rejecting the idea that a highly educated woman and a white guy can exist in blue collar and non-white worlds without having some impact on events. Rob Boynton (another teacher of mine) has compiled a series of interviews with "new new journalists" (immersive, participatory journalists) on their methods of negotiating this terrain.

Venkatesh and Kotlowitz seem to agree: there's no right answer, and the complexity of the question requires more dialog. Sounds like they're doing a pitch for j-school!

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