Television vs Research
I had a conversation with a colleague a few months back that really stuck in my mind. She argued that in the media decisions that would never, ever be considered ethical in the academic world are taken on an everday basis. I believe the conversation revolved largely around the activities of journalists working in print media, but I found myself thinking about the relationship between media and research once again whilst watching a couple of reality television programmes this week.
The first of these was Make Bradford British, a somewhat controversial two-part Channel 4 show from last year. The idea was to bring together individuals from across Bradford's culturally and racially segregated neighbourhoods, so they could learn more about one another's lives and make a series of spurious claims about what it might mean to be British.
Much of the programme was quite contrived, but there were some powerful moments: reactions to the casual, unthinking racism of a white former police officer; the journey of a mixed-race landlady who came to recognise her own prejudices; the young working class white man who learned so much from living with a devout Muslim fellow several years his senior that he decided to turn his life around, cut down on drinking a make a better for his daughter.
All very moving, but I couldn't help but remain somewhat cynical despite enjoying both the programme and many of its messages. Just how did the producers think it was okay to cherry-pick eight people from an area full of cultural tension, and throw them into a house Big-Brother style for a few days before sending individuals to live with one another just to show what happened? Why did no-one seem to intervene when a participant was being verbally abused and then sexually assaulted by racists and Islamophobes on-camera? And did they not predict that fascist blogs would pick up on the show afterwards and attempt to use it to inflame tension?
I'd like to think that most researchers would never allow themselves to get into such a pickle, knowing that gaining consent from human participants is not enough. I've read enough dodgy studies to know that this isn't true, but I feel that we at least have a culture in which ethical considerations are taken very seriously indeed.
The second programme was episode three of Cherry Healey's How to Get a Life. I'm not going to lie: I watched this because a couple of my friends appeared in it, bearing their armpit hair for all the nation to see. However, I found myself once again thinking about the relationship between media and research during this show. Like Make Bradford British, it was powerful, engaging television, with deep personal revelations and a surprisingly serious interrogation of social norms. In addition, I felt it stood on considerably firmer moral ground, with a greater appreciation of what not to film and an approach (and subject matter!) that minimised the potential for harm.
This time around, I began thinking more about the differing truths told by research and the media. The issues at hand - feminism, bodily autonomy, tattoos, subcultures - were deeply familiar because they variously concern myself and/or my fellow PhD students in the sociology department. But where we might interview or survey many in order to examine themes of meaning or societal trends or, the show concentrated on individual experience.
Does this makes its conclusions less valid? I think not. There was a story to be told here, the truth of which complements the truths told by researchers. The same can be said of Make Bradford British. I feel that the real issue comes instead with the ethical decisions taken in the "uncovering" of truth, and this is perhaps an area where the media could learn from our world.