Journalists and Research Methods

— A Rant by Boris Trnavskis, MSS student

Taking a research methods perspective, my rant questions the value of the writings of journalists like Bob Woodward and Ron Suskind, on matters of public policy, people, and historical events.  I don’t have any answers and maybe my question isn’t even valid. That is because I am writing as a new MSS student with only a superficial understanding of how research and analysis is conducted in political science and history.  So I apologize in advance.  My perspective and bias comes from specializing in research methods in my previous grad studies in an unrelated field, using a wide variety of research techniques over a 31-year working life, and teaching research methods to undergrad and grad, business and engineering students.

First I want to distinguish between research techniques and research methods.  Using inferential or descriptive statistics or probability theory, building mathematical or econometric models, applying operations research techniques such as linear and dynamic programming, using sampling survey or interview techniques, conducting archival research using primary sources, and using case analysis to investigate a specific situation, are examples of research techniques – research “tools” in your research “toolbox.”  Research methods refers to the process of deciding and selecting the “tool” best suited or most appropriate for the problem in hand.  [And parenthetically, as Dr. Maurice Scarlett stressed over and over, the term “research methodology” means the “study of different research methods” and not what I am going to do to answer a research question.  Finally, paraphrasing Russell Ackoff, if you have only a hammer and a saw in your research “toolbox,” then all problems are hammer and saw problems.]

Recently, I read three “non-fiction” books by journalists, Bob Woodward (State of Denial and Plan of Attack) and Ron Suskind (The One Percent Doctrine) to gain a better understanding of U.S. security policy.  The jacket on Woodward’s book states, “Plan of Attack is the definitive account of how and why President George W. Bush, his war council, and allies launched a preemptive attack to topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq.”  The jacket on Suskind’s book claims, “Suskind tells us what actually occurred over the next three years by tracing the steps of the officials who oversee the “’war on terror’ and the men and women who are actually fighting the fight.”  The rest of the text on both jackets implies these authors will provide the reader in-depth knowledge and understanding using inside information on the people and events they are discussing.

Before I start my rant I want to acknowledge that Woodward and Suskind are respected, best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists and authors, and I do not wish to imply any intentional mischief.   However, as a student of research methods, I am troubled by how journalists present factual information.  I think they blur the distinction between creative speculation and verifiable “facts.”  For example, Woodward might have a passage in which he says Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld held a private, SECRET [my emphasis] meeting in the White House on a particular day to discuss WMD.  Woodward then provides very detailed dialogue between the participants, complete with expletives and descriptions of their body language during that meeting.  I presume Woodward is doing this to help me understand the interpersonal dynamics and decision making process within the Bush White House; and to make his book fun to read.  Or if you are a conspiracy buff or cynic, he just wants to sell books.  What is that saying, “the facts and nothing but the facts please?”  Regardless, as a researcher from an unrelated field, I find this troubling on several levels.

First, how would Woodward know (a) if that “secret” meeting was even held; (b) if it was held, who were the participants; (c) what did they discuss; or (d) how did they behave toward each other during that meeting?  But even if one person attending that meeting “leaked” to Woodward “on the record” about a secret meeting, what is the probability the “leaker” could recall the exact words, gestures, etc. – especially when “movers and shakers” are in meetings almost non-stop, every day.  Heck, I didn’t remember my wife asking me to pick up some milk and bread on my way home today!

But even if a meeting participant had no moral or ethical issues revealing publically what took place during a SECRET White House meeting, and that person had a photographic memory, how can we be sure that that person will report the conversation accurately and honestly, without being selective or self-serving?  I mean, who would not want history to record him as a wise and influential, advisor or leader?  So much of the journalists’ writing strikes me as fiction and creative speculation – of questionable validity.  Which is fine, if it is acknowledged as fiction or an editorial position.  But from a research methods perspective, is it a reliable way to gain information or insight?  That is, how much weight should I give to books and articles written by journalists because it is hard for me to distinguish fact from fiction?

It is also troubling on another level.  In the U.S., the media and freedom of the press guarantees exist, to allow the media to be “fair and balanced” (© Fox News) in the performance of its “due diligence” responsibilities on behalf of American citizens, so those citizens can give their “informed consent” to their leaders.  Most non-partisan, news media watchdogs point out that the majority of journalists select and report events through a left-of-centre, liberal lens.  Is the process further corrupted if these journalists can make up stuff and publish it as non-fiction?  What if a journalist wants to demonize, marginalize, or ridicule a person they don’t like or agree with – like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others?  Books written by journalists are ideal vehicles for selective presentation of facts, misrepresentation, spin, and character assassination.  Why, because if I can make up conversations or take words out-of-context, I can make anyone look out-of-touch, insensitive, extreme, imperial, or almost anything I wish.  Of course, the opposite is also true if journalists like the person they are writing about, like Obama.  Bernard Goldberg’s book, “A Slobbering Love Affair: The True and Pathetic Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media,” talks about that side of the coin.

But back to the research methods issue, should we rely on books written by journalists on public policy issues simply because there is nothing better?  If yes, how much weight should we give their accounts?  Are there other sources we can use to check the “facts?” I understand that these journalists often get it right but isn’t that an “ends justify the means” kind of justification?  I don’t know the answers.  All I know is I need a glass of single malt when I read Woodward telling me exactly what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, or whoever said in confidence, behind closed doors.


2 thoughts on “Journalists and Research Methods

  1. Answers to your questions:
    Should we rely on books written by journalists on public policy issues simply because there is nothing better? Nope.
    If yes, how much weight should we give their accounts? Almost none.
    Are there other sources we can use to check the “facts?” Yup. When archives are declassified 20 years later.
    I understand that these journalists often get it right but isn’t that an “ends justify the means” kind of justification? It’s published for entertainment value. No historian is going to take a contemporary book by a journalist seriously.

    • Boris Trnavskis says:

      First, thank you for the reply. Since this is all new to me, I sincerely appreciate your insight. The 6 books I have now read, 5 by Woodward and 1 by Suskind, were certainly entertaining and I hope have given me a better understanding of some public policy issues.

      On the archives point, I really enjoyed reading Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali’s book “One Hell of a Gamble.” Can I assume, since that book is at least partly based on archival material, it is a historically accurate discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Somewhat unrelated is Henry Kissinger’s book “On China.” I also enjoyed reading that book because I know too little about China. How much should I rely on a book or memoir written by a former senior government official? I suspect the answer is probably it depends on the official. Of course, in an ideal world and if time permitted, I should read many different books and articles written by different authors on China or the Cuban Missile Crisis.

      Relying on a single authoritative source is not unusual in my previous life. For example, I don’t have to read numerous authors if I want to understand the “three-variable analysis of a firm” (microeconomics), the “abstract mode direct demand model” (transportation engineering), the “product life cycle” concept (marketing), “time series analysis” (econometrics), or “lift and drag at high MACH numbers” (aerodynamics). Bias, or a “fair and balanced” presentation of the ideas/concepts is not an issue. I only consulted more than one author to see if their illustrations, numerical examples or explanations added clarity or improved my understanding. Clearly, this is quite different from research in history and political science. Thank you again for help. Boris Trnavskis

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