Skip to content


This article was published in the Australian Journalism Review in 2004.
It underpins the focus on journalism as a methodology that characterises Research Journalism.

Documenting the methodology of journalism
By Stephen Lamble, AJR 26( I), pp. 85-106.

Since journalism’s first appearance in universities about 100 years ago, there has been debate over its academic pedigree. As Reece (1999) explains, journalism has been seen as “a hybrid, interdisciplinary mix of the humanities and the social sciences” – partly professional in outlook and partly academic – straddling theory and practice. That uncertainty has fuelled a perception that journalism lacks a formal academic methodology and, in that sense, it is seen as something of a bastard orphan discipline. Yet, because journalism exists, logic dictales that journalism must have a legitimate methodology. This article explains some of my current research into identifying and documenting that methodology and its methods. The task is big, perhaps too big for one individual, so in this article I seek 10 provoke discussion and reasoned feedback from journalists, journalism educators and researchers andjournalism students.

The findings of an academic research project must be presented as text usually in explanatory papers and/or a thesis. One important reason for that is so the research can be replicated and its findings validated by others. Similarly, professional journalists must be able to prove that researched facts supporting a particular story and their accurate representation in the narrative can be verified and justified – in a law court if necessary. Thus quests for information which satisfy precise standards of proof, an accurate presentation of those facts in textual form, and an ability to turn back if necessary to retrace the past and replicate research outcomes are common threads woven into the fabrics of sound journalistic research and good academic research.

Despite those links, despite the fact that many research methods used by journalists are intellectually rigorous and that some of those methods are the same as methods used in academe, there is no recognised academic methodology of journalism. The discovery of that deficiency is perplexing for journalists making the transition from practical day-to-day journalism to teaching and researching journalism in universities. Among other things, it has forced academic journalism researchers to adopt methodologies from other disciplines especially when moving into postgraduate research. Some have become so frustrated they have turned their backs on journalistic investigation and taken their research ideas with them into other discipline areas – especially when researching PhDs. Interestingly in that context, former journalist and former head of journalism at San Francisco State University Betty Medsger reported in 1996 that:

Though its roots in American universities are more than a century old, journalism education has the characteristics of an experiment – nota dynamic, evolving experiment, but a fragile, unsure, endangered experiment (Medsger, 1996).

In 2002, Medsger reported that non-journalism graduates in her nation were often better journalists than those who did study journalism, and that a majority of prize- and fellowship-winning journalists had never studied journalism (Medsger, 2002, p. I). Reporting on a survey of prize-winning US journalists over a 10-year period, she found that:

• 59 per cent of print journalists who won Pulitzer Prizes had never studied journalism;
• 75 per cent of broadcast journalists who won DuPont Awards had never studied journalism:
• 58 per cent ofjournalists awarded Nieman Fellowships had never studied journalism, and;
• 51 per cent of journalists awarded Knight Fellowships at Stanford University had never studied journalism (Medsger, 2002, p. 1).

Reflecting on the reasons underlying her findings, Medsger said:

Perhaps the fact that people who do not study joumalism are
often better journalists should not be a surprise. After all, journalism
itself is the study and synthesis of everything else, of all
disciplines. All journalism is derivative … Journalists put information
and ideas from other disciplines into public vessels of
various kinds – breaking news stories, investigative pieces, analytical
work, cultural criticism. These non-journalism graduates
clearly know how to think journalistically, and they arc adept at
filling various vessels with quality work. But their thinking and
leaming did not originate in journalism education programs.
Mentors in newsrooms apparently have been their teachers. Or
perhaps it was experience itself, which again is not surprising.
(Medsger, 2002, p. 1)

Could there be a link between journalism’s supposed lack of a methodology in academe and the fact many non-journalism graduates surveyed by Medsger had won more awards than journalism graduates? After all, if a discipline has no obvious methodological foundation, how do you define its boundaries? And how can academics and educators reach agreement about how it should be taught, studied and researched? Little wonder that Medsger suggested:

Journalism is in a constant state of needing to improve and another constant state of undisciplined reflection about itself. This is not productive. But isn’t it the sort of problem that university-based journalism study could address? The profession would gain a great deal from an infusion of more people from diverse and interesting educational backgrounds – like those who did not study journalism but do succeed at it (Medsger, 2002, p. 1).

As a graduate in another discipline who succeeded at journalism before I studied it and someone now engaged in university-based journalism research and teaching, I agree with Medsger. There has been too much “undisciplined reflection”. One major outcome of that lack of disciplined reflection (and research), and one of the most significant problems in journalism education today, is its perceived lack of a legitimate academic methodology. Yet the simple, logical fact is that journalism must have a methodology because journalism is, journalism happens. It is taught and learned, sold and consumed. It is driven by an insatiable primal need for information – a key ingredient in our survival instinct. It helps underpin our social, legal, educational and political fabric. It helps us make sense of the world – so much so that it is impossible to imagine how our 21st century world could function without it.

That kind of logic has driven attempts over the years by some eminent academic researchers to define a methodology of journalism. In the past 20 years people such as Lloyd (1999), Altschull (1990), Parsigian (1986), Medsger (1996; 2002) and Windschuttle (1998), to name a few, have researched in the area. Lloyd, for example, examined the impacts of the US’s “First Amendment doctrines and mass communications theory on joumalism pedagogy and research” (Lloyd, 1999, p. 2). He also examined the influence of “American Pragmatism” on journalism, but concluded that “pragmatic theory has problems with ethics and moral standards” (Lloyd, 1999, p. II). Parsigian also examined US journalism, but took a different approach. Her research was explained in a PhD dissertation entitled News reporting: Method in the midst of chaos, in which she said:

It is generally believed that news stories are chaotically conceived and written, that the craftsmanship required to produce them is elusive to capture, especially for presentation in journalism classrooms. Like the tale of the capricious god, Pan, these notions may constitute no more than pure myth (Parsigian, 1986).


… no one, to our knowledge, has produced such a pattern – a model that describes the systematic stages of research that may be applied to all types ,?f news stories. The absence of such a model may well bc the source of the many frustrations instructors experience when teaching basic news writing courses and may be the source of student difficulty in producing an accurate,well-organized, even well-written news story (Parsigian, 1986).

Parsigian encapsulated some of the frustration felt by those attempting to define journalism’s methodology. Her quest for a “pattern” or “model” was clearly a search for a methodology that could be documented. Having made that point, it becomes necessary to pause and define exactly what is meant by the term “methodology”. It is an intellectual concept that needs to be clearly distinguished from words such as “theory”, “argument” and “method”, US journalism academic Margaret DeFleur (1997) explained the concept of methodology well when she wrote:

Developing a methodology … requires that the steps used in selecting and studying a problem be described and that justifications for using particular approaches be explained (DeFleur, 1997, p. 212).

Quoting respected US philosopher and methodological researcher Abraham
Kaplan, DeFleur continued: Kaplan summarised these points in this way:

“The word ‘methodology’ … is one which is used for a certain discipline and for its subject matter. I mean by methodology the study the description, the explanation, and the justification – of methods, and not the methods themselves.” (DeFleur, 1997, p. 212).

Journalism and journalistic themes
Kaplan’s definition begs the question of how journalism has survived in universities without a documented methodology – without a description, explanation and justification of its methods. After all, the “first gesture towards a
special college education for journalism” occurred in the US in 1869 (Mott, 1962, p. 406). A journalism curriculum was first adopted at the University of Illinois in 1904 (Mott, 1962, p. 604; University oflllinois, n.d.) , with the first separate school of journalism founded at the University of Missouri in 1908 (Mott, 1962, p. 604). How could that have happened, and how can we have university journalism courses today, if journalism has no academic pedigree? Perhaps no-one noticed? Maybe it is journalism’s best keptsecret? Or,as seems likely, is the problem more to do with a lack of documentation than a real lack of an academic methodology?

Perhaps part of the problem is cultural – related to the ways journalists and academics reflect their institutional cultures in language. US journalism historian Frank Luther Mott pointed out over 30 years ago that one advantage “natural to research in journalism” and its place in academia relates to the way journalistic research is presented:

While some of the [academic] investigations result in reports designed for a highly specialised audience and therefore are not easy reading for the general public, most of them may be, and should be, presented in forceful, unpedantic, readable prose. The idea that a doctoral dissertation must be dull, sesquipedalian, and so recondite that it requires translation into good English to be comprehensible to Tom, Dick or Harry, is a superstition of which no journalist should be guilty. We [journalists] should not renounce our birthright, which is fresh and effective English, for the pedant’s mess of pottage (Mott in Nafziger & Wilkerson, 1949, p. 129).

While her perspective was slightly different, Medsger made a similar point:

Even while being intellectuals, sometimes in ways that merit as much respect as the best of traditional scholarly accomplishments, joumalism professionals and journalism educators often have demurred from acknowledging or recognising the intellectual nature of their work: “Just a trade” … “Just nuts-and-boltscourses”. The language used to describejournalism needs to go beyond the language of craft and trade and embrace some of the best language of the university. Not to do so may perpetuate a false modesty that has been harmful to journalism within the university (Medsger, 1996).

Whatever the causes, its perceived methodological deficiency has left journalism vulnerable to attack – a weakness that has seen journalism as a discipline repeatedly raped and pillaged on many fronts. In the Australian context, it was an outsider, someone who was not a journalist, who pointed the finger at journalism academics with a claim they were working in a methodological house of straw, As many Australian journalism educators would be aware, debate flared nearly a decade ago after John Hartley (1995), a cultural studies theorist, wrote a scathing article in which he argued that “In short, there is no essence to journalism, no universal.” (Hartley, 1995, p. 21) And:

It [journalism] entered the realm of formal learning late, reluctantly, and without much of a welcome from the existing inhabitants. It has never achieved stability as an academic discipline. Students are simply asked to do it without understanding it (Hartley, 1995, p. 23).

Worse still:

Journalism is a terra nullius of epistemology, deemed by anyone who wanders by to be an uninhabited territory of knowledge, fit to be colonised by anyone who’s interested (Hartley, 1995, p. 27).

A year later, Medsger (1996) suggested that part of the trouble with journalism education was that it had been colonised by non-journalists.

By the mid-1950s, a new force was taking root in some journalism education programs. Eventually, it would permeate most programs. This new force – communication studies – would radically rewrite the rules governing who should teach journalism, and it would lead to changes and confusion that dog journalism education even today. The uniting of communication studies and journalism grew, in substantial part, out ofa mix of bureaucratic expediency and a lack of understanding ofjournalism
(Medsger, 1996).

Similarly, Herbert (1997) suggested that:

Somewhere along the line journalism education took a wrong turn. Schools developed communication PhDs who specialise in opinion surveys and statistical studies and most have little application to what newspapers do and need (Herbert, 1997, p. 17).

Three years after Hartley’s attack, while writing about theory as a component of methodology in the context of journalism in academe, Breen (1998) said it was time journalism educators re-thought their role because:

A discipline without a written body of theory (literally, a “literature”) is unthinkable in a university culture (Breen, 1998, p.3).

Breen also reported that while there was “a large literature” dealing with the theory of communication, it only partly dealt with “journalistic themes” (Breen, 1998, p. 161). Windsehuttle (1998) argued that problems resulting from the lack of a specific journalistic research methodology had been exacerbated by long-standing conflicts between the advocates of particular strands of academic journalistic/communications/media studies theory and the demands of practical journalism. He was scathing about the adoption of abstract social science methodologies (such as structuralism, modernity and strains of Marxist theory) by academic researchers and attempts to expand those approaches to encompass “media practice” (Windschuttle, 1998, pp. 22-24). Instead, he argued, the methodology of journalism must be based on a concrete assumption that “there is a real world to report and that it is possible to report it accurately” (Windschuttle, 1998, p. 23). As he saw it: T

here are three characteristics of journalism that any education program in the field should uphold. First, journalism is committed to reporting the truth about what occurs in the world …. Journalism, in otherwords, upholds a realist view of the world and an empirical methodology. Second, the principal ethical obligations of journalists are to their readers, their listeners and their viewers. Journalists report not to please their employers or dvertisers nor to serve the state or support some other cause but in order to inform their audience…. Third, in the print media, journalists should be committed to good writing. This means their writing should be clear and their grammar precise (Windschuttle, 1998, p. 17).

In 1999 Lloyd said:

The problems of journalism are, at base, philosophical problems. They involve questions of definition and function: What is news? What is truth? How can one know truth? These are the recurring and unstated issues behind most journalism disputes (Lloyd, 1999, p. 1).

Two years later, and six years after Hartley’s stinging attack, journalism was still seen to be in a methodological void, with Tapsall and Varley reporting in 200 I that the lack of a recognised methodology had left Australian journalism “struggling with a crisis of identity, image, and function” (Tapsall & Varley, 2001, p. v) and that:

Journalism practitioners, students, and educators need to enhance their understanding of the institution of journalism and its place in society. It is no longer enough (if indeed it ever was) to simply do journalism or be a journalist. Those committed to a news that matters must develop better ways of assessing, evaluating, and articulating the purpose and practice ofjournalism (Tapsall & Varley, 200 I, p. v).

Journalism viewed through the lens of journalism
So how can journalism practitioners, students and educators enhance their
understanding of journalism and its place in society? How can they better articulate the purpose and practice of joumalism?

Touching on a pointsimilar to the suggestionmade earlier in this article that part of the problem could be related to different cultural expectations, notable US scholar, Columbia University’s journalism PhD program designer Professor James Carey, specificallyquestioned the relationship between journalism as an academic discipline and the social science methodologies it is often linked with by academics when they cast around to find ajustification for their research:

Most social science studies of journalism – and they are studies of journalism; that is, they are conducted from the outside rather than from within – are seen through the lens of social science, not through the lens of journalism (in McKnight, 2000, p. 17).


For me the question is: How do you study it [journalism] in a way which is both intellectually sound and scholarly and yet at the same time that attends to it, in terms of what it is: a social practice, a historical phenomenon, part of the political discourse of a nation and a people, and a piece of narrative art that
is a form of the art of storytelling which it takes in modern industrial conditions.
I don’t have an answer to all those questions but I do know that a PhD curriculum must be constructed around such attentiveness to what journalism is (in McKnight, 2000, p. 19).

Carey makes a key point. What really has been going on with journalism in academe? Is Medsger right when she suggests journalism has been colonised? Have sociologists, public relations apologists and cultural studies and media theorists cuckolded journalism in academe? And have some journalism educators fallen victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy because they failed to question the assumptions of theorists such as Hartley? In fact, while some did argue with the detail of what Hartley suggested, most overlooked the fact that he was quite simply wrong. He was wrong because journalism must have a methodology. Like Mabo, there was no terra nullius. With research the methodology can be seen to stretch at least as far back in terms of scholarship as the Greek philosophers. Philosophically and ethically it can also be seen to have much in common with philosophies and practices associated with the Imperial Censorate of 7th century China (Lamble, 2002). The real problem is that journalism’s methodology has not been documented.

In that context, and as a starting point from which to begin actually documenting that methodology, it is instructive to return to Carey’s suggestion that “most social science studies of journalism … are conducted from the outside
rather than from within” and are viewed “through the lens ofsocial science, not through the lens of journalism” (McKnight, 2000, p. 17). That leads logically to the question of what, then, is journalism? What do journalists actually do? What are their methods – what actually happens before and during the process of an article being written for publication or broadcast?

Kipling’s ‘Six Honest Serving Men’
Stemming from those questions is a conclusion that any all-encompassing methodology of journalism must be founded on a fundamental understanding that the over-riding aim of the discipline is to seek answers to questions as an aid to finding and telling the truth in fair, accurate, balanced and ethical ways. As Kaplan put it:

… the domain of truth has no fixed boundaries within it. In the one world of ideas there are no barriers to trade or to travel. Each discipline may take from the others techniques, concepts, laws, data, models, theories, or explanations – in short, whatever it finds useful for its own inquiries (Kaplan, 1964, p. 4).

Leaving aside philosophical discussion about what is truth and accepting the fact that one person’s truth may not always be the same as another’s, a next step is to ask how journalists discover the truths they report, describe, discuss and comment on? Simply, they do that by attempting to answer basic questions of who, what, when, where, why and how – a truism immortalised by one of the world’s great early journalists, Rudyard Kipling (1986, p. 9), when he wrote:

I keep six honest serving-men,
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west … (Kipling, 1986, p. 291).

It would be a mistake to think Kipling’s approach was simplistic. As Medsger (2002) said:

The who-what-when-where-how-why questions should not be ridiculed, as they have been by some in this debate, just as innovative forms of criticism and commentary should not be dismissed. We should all remember that people pay a high price for asking those often complex and hated questions, simple though they may sound. Who did what, when and where they did it, how and why it happened … these are, in fact, the very essence of the most courageous acts of journalism throughout history. They require a journalist’s knowledge and a journalistic understanding of the matter at hand.

Most of the 24 journalists killed in 2000 and the 37 killed in 2001, as documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists, were killed because, in one way or another, they were asking: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? And they were asking not as part of a formula for the commodity “news”, but rather to uncover essential information that government officials or other powerful people did not want the public to know. Journalists sometimes pay a high price for doing the basics. There is nothing comparable in other disciplines.(Medsger, 2002 p. 1).

Kaplan, likewise, recognised the methodological significance of attempting to answer fundamental questions- especially questionsof what and why. Talking of questions, descriptions and explanations. he said:

… descriptions may themselves be explanatory – the “how” may give us the “why” and not just a “what”. For instance, we maydescribe certain prior events, and thereby provide a causal explanation, or we may describe certain immediate events to explain why one produced another. An explanation does not tell us something of a different kind than a description does, but it tells us something else than the mere description of what it is explaining, and especially something appropriate to the context in which the explanation is to function (Kaplan, 1964, p.. 329).

That leads to the obvious point that an explanation and description of the methodology ofjournalism would have to acknowledge that, like medicine or law, not all journalism is the same. That, for example, most forms of journalism lie between two extremes. The simplest is very shallow, often formulabased, opportunistic and/or reactive – merely involving reporting on events and/or the outpourings of others as, when and where they occur – while complex forms are generally highly meaningful, proactive and involve deep investigation and research followed by careful writing to explain and describe in greater depth. As Weinberg observed:

It would be wonderful to say every journalist is an investigative journalist, but it would be untrue. … Some reporters and editors must be available to produce features about how cats now outnumber dogs, service pieces on how to purchase an energy-efficient refrigerator … (Weinberg, 1996, p. xv).

An umbrella methodology would also necd to accommodate the fact that higher-level journalism – and particularly investigative journalism – generally involves much deeper intellectual involvement and commitment from practitioners than shallow reporting because the former encompasses forward planning and may rest on, for example, extreme persistence, complex research methods such as painstaking document analysis, diplomatic cultivation of shy sources,access to databases, freedom of information searches, computer-assisted statistical analysis, painstaking interpretative research and even elements of personal danger – all leading to the publication or broadcast of high-impact, often agenda-setting, public interest/benefit stories.

Closely related to the previous point but distinct from it, the methodology would also have to take account of an observation by Johnson (1994) that journalists and the media outlets they work for (arguably also, by extension, journalism academics) can probably be categorised into being “A-team” or “Bteam” players:

The A-level publications and broadcasters generally exhibit a richer version of the complex issues for the community, nation and world, and they are willing or able to devote the resources to reporting them. The B-Ievel news producers are all those who do not cover the news with the depth, imagination and intellectual grounding of the “A” producers. In similar fashion, editorial staff members in any newsroom are informally classified as on the “A”team or the “8” team. The “A” reporters are brighter and more intellectually aggressive…. The “B-team” journalists are, at best, pedestrian in their approach to any story, and they seem to be most secure in the status quo (Johnson, 1994, p. 57).

Journalism does not stand alone
It is also significant that journalism as a whole cannot be viewed in isolation. Journalism per se must be seen in different political, social, cultural, legal and historic contexts. Carey, for example, defined journalism “concretely” as:

… a vernacular form of literature, an imaginative practice that emerged at a given historical moment (roughly the 17’h century) in relationship to the growth of literacy and above all, the social movement of republican democracy (in McKnight, 2000, p. 18).

Knight offered a different but related definition:

Journalism could be said to be non-fiction writing(news) which relies on identifiable sources. Investigative journalism might be defined as finding important news someone does not want the public to know. Journalists … have professional and ethical responsibilities to look beyond what they have been told by those in authority (Knight, 2000, p. 48).

Referring to his A-team, B-team analogy, Johnson (1994) said A-team journalists, who make “a greater, more vital contribution to democracy” than their also-ran B-team colleagues, produce in-depth articles and “hard” breaking news by focusing on a set of journalistic activities which he summarised as:
research, reporting, analysis and writing (Johnson, 1994, p. 58). So, while journalism is often about more, and sometimes much less, than mere reactive news reporting, and while investigative journalism is but one factor in the total equation, it is equally true that as Gaines says:

Interviews, documents, surveillance and surveys are the tools of the investigative reporter. The reporter learns which to use at a particular time, like a golfer who knows which club to use under different conditions as he or she proceeds through a course. The best investigators during the course of their investigation may draw on all of the tools at one time or another
(Gaines, 1988, in Knight, 2000, p. 49).

But interviews, documents, surveillance and surveys are not the exclusive tools of the investigative reporter. They are equally likely to be used at times by most journalists. Further, their use will be informed by questions of who, what, when, where, how and why. Yin (1989) is one academic researcher who has paid particular attention to those questions. An expert in the methods of case studies, he says how andwhy questions also have special relevance to the
discipline of history (Yin, 1989, p. 17) and:

In general, “what” question[s] may either be exploratory … or about prevalence (in which surveys or the analysis of archival records would be favoured). “How” and “why” questions are likely to favour the use of case studies, experiments, or histories (Yin, 1989, p. 19).

He argues that “the case study relies on many of the same techniques as history” (Yin, 1989, p. 19).

Journalism and history
Yin is one of many academics who have recognised that there is a close relationship between journalism and history. Philip Meyer was another. He said “it used to be” that journalism was referred to as “history in a hurry” (Meyer, 1979, p. 14). Back in 1949, Wilkerson observed:

… the journalist is himself[sic] the historian of the present, and the record which he puts together will, when used with critical discretion, furnish valuable source material for the scholar of the future who delves into the history of our times (Wilkerson, in Nafziger & Wilkerson, 1968, p. 11).


In order to portray his subject against the panorama of the times, the writer must have a good background in many fields but particularly in history, economics, sociology and political science (Wilkerson, in Nafziger & Wilkerson, 1968, p. 15).

Brucker adopted a similar theme 30 years ago when he suggested that:

Whatever the age, whatever the accompanying paraphernalia of civilisation, it is always the journalism of the day that tells us most of what we know about it (Brucker, 1973, p. 14).


No doubt it is out of scale to liken today’s run-of-the-mill reporter to the Greek historian known through the ages. Yet they are alike in that they observe and write of events they have seen, and in doing so give us some understanding of the meaning of those events. This is not easy. … it is only through the reporter who was there that we can learn what it was like, whether somewhere back down the long hallways of time or across town yesterday. (Brucker, 1973, p.15).

Where Brucker was tentative, Windschuttle, a historian and journalism educator, was certain. Writing of the Ancient Greeks, he said:

The origins of journalism lie in exactly the same place as the origins of history. The first true historian is widely acknowledged as Thucydides, the Athenian who wrote The history of the Peloponnesian War sometime between 424 and 400 Be. … This is all first-hand observation and, to my mind, there is no doubt it is journalism. In short, as well as the first historian, Thucydides should be recognised as the first journalist … (Windschuttle, 1999, pp. 52, 54).

As Windschuttle noted, most of The history ofthe Peloponnesian War is a running commentary on the course of the war as it unfolded. Thucydides himself
described his methods:

And with regard to my factual reporting of events of the war, I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions: either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I have heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eye-witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other or else from imperfect memories” (Thucydides, 1972, p. 48, in Windschuttle,

Thucydides was clearly seeking the truth and doing his best to write fair, accurate and balanced reports. Much the same could be said for many parts of the Bible. As a book, it is part history, part reporting, part story-telling. Much of it is journalism. It is interesting, then, that history has a long-standing and academically respectable methodology, while journalism supposedly docs not. It is also a recognised fact that the majority ofjournalistic reporting is historic. Journalists deal with events that have already happened. Even relatively rare “live” broadcasts of “history in the making” from the scenes of breaking news stories are subject to unavoidable timedelays inherent in thetransmission process which mean that listeners and viewers receive information and images relating to events that have already happened. As de Burgh said: “It is often said that journalism is the first rough draft of history … ” (de Burgh, 2000, p. 3).
In a slightly different sense, Startt and Sloan (1989) could have been defining another key, textual, aspect ofjournalism in terms of it being a “draft of history” when they wrote:

The object of historical research is communication that normally takes the form of composition. It may be book-length composition or one of shorter variety.” (Startt & Sloan, 1989, p. 157).


… history was a branch of literature until about 200 years ago … both history and literature are custodians of the literary tradition (Startt & Sloan, 1989, p. 159).

Stant and Sloan could equally have been referring to journalism when they said that ” … historical study contains at least three elements: (a) evidence, (b) interpretation, and (c) narrative” (Startt & Sloan, 1989, p. 2).

Despite the obvious and often referred-to links, few historians and journalists (apart from Windschuttle) have drawn specific and direct methodological parallels between the disciplines. Mott (1962), for example, failed to make a methodological link, even though it was almost literally under his nose when he wrote American journalism. A history: 1690 – 1960. The book was scholarly and valuable, but did not specifically relate history to journalistic methodology. In fact, according to Stempel and Westley (1989), their book Research methods in mass communication was only the third book “devoted specifically to mass communication research methods” since 1949. The others, they said, were An introduction to journalism research, edited by Ralph Nafziger and Marcus Wilkerson (1949) – which has already been mentioned here – and Introduction to mass communications research, edited by Nafziger and White and published in 1958. Significantly, if one views journalism as only one specialised
aspect of mass communication and one bears in mind the suggestion by Mcdsger (1999) that journalism was “colonised” by communication studies, Nord pointed out that:

Research on journalism and research on communication are overlapping but distinctly different enterprises. Journalism involves communication, but it is also a social, economic, and political institution with a unique and important history. Journalism historians would be remiss if they were to limit themselves to the study of the communication aspect of’journalism and ignore the infinite variety of journalism history. Yet they are also remiss if they fail to participate in the creation of a science of communication (Nord, in Stempel & Westley, 1989, p. 310).

Nord (in Stempel & Westley, 1989, p. 300) says historians have regularly borrowed ideas from other disciplines and have always prided themselves on their methodological pluralism. Categorising history as a “catch-all category”of empirical study, he said it employs “various levels of generalisation to describe, interpret or explain collections of data” (Nord, in Stempel & Westley,
1989, p. 291).

Journalism, history and law work together
It would be wrong, however, to believe that the methodology of journalism is linked exclusively to history. Consider again Kaplan’s point that:

… the domain of truth has no fixed boundaries within it. In the one world of ideas there are no barriers to trade or to travel. Each discipline may take from the others techniques, concepts, laws, data, models, theories, or explanations – in short, whatever it finds useful for its own inquiries (Kaplan, 1964, p. 4).

It is not surprising then that some researchers have also seen close ties between journalism and the methodology of law and between the methodologies of law and history. Noting that legal research is one of the “oldest areas of communications research”, Gillmor and Dennis (in Stempel & Westley, 1989,
p. 333) also say that:

The methods of history, philosophy, sociology, and other disciplines have been applied to the law for many years (Gillmor & Dennis, in Stempel & Westley, 1989, p. 331).

Stempel and Westley (1989) are more direct, simply stating that: “History and law is a frequently encountered combination of research interests …” (1989, p. 7). Making a point reminiscent of Gaines’s previously quoted statement (1998, p. 17, in Knight, 2000, p. 49) that “interviews, documents, surveillance and surveys are the tools of the investigative reporter”, Gillmor and Dennis (in Stempel & Westley, 1989, p. 335) say that “cases, statutes, and constitutions are the primary stuff of the law”. And returning once more to Gaines, and his observation that good investigative reporters use different research tools at different times “like a golfer who knows which club to use” (Gaines, 1988, p. 17, in Knight, 2000, p. 49), Stempel and Westley make a similar point when they say that “… legal research is at once a scholarly pursuit and a professional set of tools” (Stempel & Westley, 1989, p. 7).

In fact, obvious connections between the discipline of law and studies of communications inspired one of the earliest attempts to identify a methodology of journalism. Writing in 1949, United States journalist, academic and media studies theorist Frederick Siebert said research in the field of law and communications fell within the ambit of the “immediately related fields” of journalism, law and political science (Siebert, 1949, in Nafziger & Wilkerson, 1968, p. 34). In more contemporary times, Ericson (1996) implied there were very close epistemological and methodological links between law and journalism, or “lawand news” as he put it. Hesaid the two disciplines have common purposes, wherein:

Both legal operatives and journalists work in terms of an event orientation, conflict resolution, individualisation andpersonalisation of problems, and realism. … Both legal officials and journalists have similar procedural norms, including especially conceptions of objectivity and fairness, through which they practise their craft and achieve legitimacy (Ericson, 1996, pp. 196,197).

There is also a mutual dependency between law and journalism. By writing articles about law and crime, journalists help law maintain its legitimacy. As Bentham said in 1825:

Publicity is the very soul of justice. It is the keenest spur to exertion and the surest of all guards against improbity. It keeps the judge himself, while trying, under trial. It is to publicity, more than to everything else put together, that the English system of procedure owes its being the least bad system as yet extant, instead of being the worst (Bentham, 1825, p. 67).

And just as journalism gives legitimacy to the law and judiciary, the process
also works in reverse – with law and its dependence on publicity legitimising
the methodology ofjournalism. That said, there are those who believe that law
as an academic discipline might be as much of a methodological minefield .as
journalism. According to researchers Clark and Herr (1986):

There is a common view that most [legal research] projects can be implemented by putting a problem and researcher together in a black bag and, after a little shaking and prodding, a solution will drop out, (Clark & Herr, 1986, p. 8).

As an alternative to a magician’s bag, Clark and Herr argue that legal research must be characterised by three essential hierarchical elements:

• Investigation and collection of data;
• Analysis of data;
• Recommendations (Clark & Herr, 1986, p. 8).

Comparing that approach with the previously quoted explanation by Startt
and Sloan that: ” … historical study contains at least three elements: (a) evidence, (b) interpretation, and (c) narrative” (Startt & Sloan, 1989, p. 2), it seems historical, legal and journalistic methodologies have much in common. And while there are obvious differences in detail because of differences in emphasis, all three may actually have more in common than not because, returning to Kipling, there is a requirement in all three areas to provide credible and verifiable answers to the same questions of who, what. when, where, how and why. In fact, Tosh (1984, p. 94) says historical writing, which is characterised by “description, narrative and analysis”, particularly seeks to answer questions about how, what and why, with an emphasis on cause and effect (Tosh; 1984, pp. 96, 97). Stempel and Westley (1989) point out that:

Scholarship is an “adversary proceeding”, a reality … The historian begs to differ – finds an interpretation based on new source materials. Legal scholars beg to differ – from old interpretations and flawed interpretations of the law. Communication theorists attack the assumptions of their predecessors and
erect new theories that account for everything the earlier theory did and some new findings as well. This is adversarity [sic] with a high purpose. (Stempel & Westley, 1989, p. 9)

There are powerful connections between essential aspects of the research epistemologies ofjoumalism and history and between those of history and law, and law and journalism. Each deals in varying degrees with questions of who, what, when, where, how and why. All seek to produce empirical information that is capable of replication. All make use of primary and secondary and qualitative and quantitative research methods, materials and data. Each discipline produces its research outcomes as text – a significant point in terms of a claim by Hartley (1995) that journalism is a “textual system” and that “a textual system
needs an interdisciplinary investigation” (Hartley, 1995, p. 22). Intellectually and practically, there is also often an ambiguity which makes it difficult to decide what is journalism, what is law and what is history. That is demonstrated in the following explanation by Startt and Sloan in which the words “journalism” or “law” could legitimately be transposed for the word “history”:

… history has been primarily a humanistic study, an exploration of what people have donc. It is a form of inquiry into the past that asks questions about the things people have done and elicits answers based on evidence. In that process there is a story to be told and truth to be found (Startt & Sloan, 1989, p.2).

Specifically, Startt and Sloan theorise that historical sources of evidence can
be categorised into eight basic divisions: “(a) original sources, (b) published
personal records, (c) published official documents, (d) secondary written sources, (e) statistical sources, (f) oral sources, (g) pictorial sources and (h) physical remains” (Startt & Sloan, 1989, p. 122). Those same divisions could be used to categorise “real-world” evidence considered in both legal and journalistic research. Further, historians, journalists, legal practitioners and scholars are all bound to meet similar high standards of rigour when weighing the credibility of source material.

Interpretation, too, is as important to history and law as it is to journalism.
As Startt and Sloan observe:

Every time one attempts to explain causation or to probe into the nature of change, one interprets. Without interpretation, historical study remains superficial, with no probing beneath the surfaceof facts to determine why events occurredandwhy people acted as they did. With no attempt to determine why, historical study provides mere chronology … One purpose of good history is to provide understanding of change. That it does through interpretation (Startt & Sloan 1989, p. 20).

Exactly the same could be said of interpretive journalism, which was described
by Granato (1998) as:

… the marshalling of facts and others’ opinions, thcn interpreting them with a view toward helping the reader make sense of it all. The idea is that while not everyone would agree with the journo’s conclusions, they arereasonablebased on the evidence presented. (Granato, 1998, p. 7)

And, as Breen (1998) put it:

Journalists, like historians, are concerned with fact, and how to make sense of “the real world”…. As well as having this kin-ship with history, journalism is also within the domain of literature (Breen, 1998, p. 170).

The ideas discussed in this article are a starting point. It is hoped they will generate thought and provoke discussion. The topic is much too complex and wide-ranging to be definitively dealt with in a single article in a forum such as this journal. But just as an investigative journalist sometimes “floats” a story to see what responses it will generate. this article was designed to draw feedback in what is still the hunting and gathering phase of a complex research project. It is also acknowledged that some will disagree with thc approach taken here. It is an approach oriented more towards a practitioner’s view of journalism as a pragmatic real-world profession than towards a sociologically oriented theoretical construct as canvassed by researchers such as Gans, Berkowitz and Tuchman. That may offend some, but if it spurs them into articulating their particular understandings, so much the better.

Another aim was to explain that, while journalism has been perceived as an orphan child methodologically, its roots actually extend as deeply and widely as those of the accepted traditional methodologies of history and law – disciplines with which it shares much methodologically. A further objective was to take the first steps towards documenting a methodology ofjournalism – a methodology that although unrecognised and multi-faceted must logically exist. The next step is to start recording that methodology in precise detail. One logical first step on that path would be to adopt a set of key words and concepts as signposts representing major principles. That list of elements should relate to the specialist language and culture of journalism. It would include (but not be limited to) essential joumalistic words and concepts such as: balanced, fair and accurate accounts of events; adherence to ethical standards; news values; research and investigation; seeking truth and providing a contextual interpretive framework by attempting to answer who, what, when, where, why and how; reporting and storytelling through text, narrative and images; good writing; legal awareness; historic perspective; political awareness; information, education and entertainment; objectivity; public interest; and public benefit.

Another aim of this article was to convince journalism educators that it is in our own collective interests to demonstrate to the rest of academe, to our students, to industry and society generally that our discipline, journalism, has at least as strong and proud an academic pedigree as the closely related and generally respected disciplines of history and law.

To move forward from here and start documenting journalistic methodology will be a complex task which will take time. To help achieve that I am seeking feedback. Bearing in mind the difference between methodology, methods and theoretical discussion, what other methodological concepts should be explored? What should be included under the umbrella ofjournalism methodology? What should be left out? What is overlooked here? What other disciplines in addition to history and law, if any, are methodologically close to journalism? Can you make a reasoned contribution? Constructive criticism, feedback and suggestions would be welcomed at:

Note: Stephen Lamble is now on the editorial board of Research Journalism and feedback can be directed to him, and the rest of us who are interested in this endeavour, via this website.

Altschull, J. H. (1990). From Milton to McLuhan: The ideas behind American journalism. White Plains, NJ: Longman.

Bentham, J. (1825). Judicial evidence.

Breen, M. (Ed.). (1998). Journalism theory and practice. Paddington, NSW:Macleay Press.

Brucker, H. (1973). Communication is power: Unchanging values in a changing journalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, S., & Herr, M. (1986). Planning legal research. Melbourne: The Victoria Law Foundation.

de Burgh, H. (Ed.) (2000). Investigative journalism: Context and practice. London & New York: Routledge (Taylor and Francis Group).

DeFleur, M. (1997). Computer-assisted investigative reporting: Development and methodology. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Ericson, R. V. (1996). Why law is like news. In D. Nelken (Ed.), Law as communication. Aldershot: Dartmouth Publishing Co Ltd.

Granato, L. (1998). Interpretive journalism and research. In Research into Australian journalism, study guide. Geelong: Deakin University, Faculty of Arts.

Hartley, J. (1995). Journalism and modernity. Australian Journal a/Communication, 22(2), 20-30.

Herbert, 1. (1997). Journalism education at the tertiary level. Australian Journalism Review, 19(1),7-18.

Johnson, J. T. (1994). Applied cybernetics and its implications for education for journalism. Australian Journalism Review, 16(2), 55-66.

Kaplan, A. (1964). The conduct 0/ inquiry: Methodology /01′ behavioral science. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company.

Kipling, R. (1986). The elephant’s child, Just so stories. In Rudyard Kipling. New York: Exeter Books.

Knight, A. (2000). On-line investigative journalism. Australian Journalism Review, 22(2), 45-58.

Lamble, S. (2002, February). Freedom of Information, a Finnish clergyman’s gift to democracy. Freedom ofInformation Review, 97, 2-8.

Lloyd, C. (1999). Journalism and American pragmatism. Australian Journalism Review, 21(1),1-16.

McKnight, D. (2000). Scholarship, research and journalism. Australian Journalism Review, 22(2), 17-22.

Medsger, B. (1996). Winds of change challenges confronting journalism education. Retrieved March 27, 2004, from ism/journalism_edu/winds_of_change/WOCwelcome.html

Medsger, B. (2002). Getting journalism education out of the way. Essays. Retrieved March 25, 2004, from forum.l.essay.medsger.html

Meyer. P. (1979). Precision journalism: A reporter’s introduction /0 social science methods (2″d ed.). Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.

Mott, F. L. (1949). Conclusion. InAn introduction to journalistic research (reprinted 1968). New York: Greenwood Press.

Mott, F. L. (1962). American journalism. A history: 1690 – 1960 (3′” ed.). New York: Macmillan.

Nafziger, R., & White, D. (Eds.). (1958). Introduction /0 Mass Communications
Research. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Nafziger, R., & Wilkerson, M. (Eds.). (1949). An introduction to journalistic research (reprinted 1968). New York: Greenwood Press.

Parsigian, E. K. (1986). News reporting: Method in the midst of chaos. PhD dissertation. The University Of Michigan Library.

Reece, S. D. (1999) The progressive potential ofjournalism education: Recasting the academic versus professional debate. The Harvard International Journal of Press Politics, 4(4),70-94.

Startt, J., & Sloan, W. D. (1989). Historical methods in mass communication.
New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Stempel, G., & Westley, B. (Eds.). (1989). Research methods in mass communication. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Tapsall, S., & Varley, C. (Eds.), (2001). Journalism: Theory in practice. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Tosh, J. (1984). The pursuit ofhistory. Burnt Hill, Harlow, Essex: Longman. University of Illinois. (n.d.). College of Communications time line (75 years of excellence). Retrieved March 26, 2004, from

Weinberg, S. (1996). The reporter’s handbook: An investigator’s guide to documents and techniques (3ed ed.). New York: St Martin’s Press.

Windschuttle, K. (1998). Cultural studies versus journalism. In M. Breen (Ed.), Journalism theory and practice. Paddington, NSW: Macleay Press.

Windschuttle, K. (1999). Journalism and the western tradition. Australian Journalism Review. 21(1), 50-67.

Yin, R. K. (1989). Case study research design and methods. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications.

Dr Stephen Lambie is co-ordinator of Journalism Studies at the University of
the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. Email:

Please note that any typographical errors in this version of this article are likely to have resulted from its transposition into WordPress and will not appear in the original version.

Reproduced with permission from the Australian Journalism Review:

Copyright of Full Text rests with the original copyright owner and, except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, copying this copyright material is prohibited without the permission of theowner or its exclusive licensee or agent or by way of a licence from Copyright Agency Limited. For information
about such licences contact Copyright Agency Limited on (02) 9394 7600 (ph) or (02) 93947601 (fax).

  1. I’m a forner-bench-scientist-turned-journalist who was recently hired as an assistant journalism professor at a research university. My field is science journalism, and my research focus could be described as looking at the history of science through the lens of journalism. I must (of course) publish, but before I can publish, I must figure out what academic journalism is. What are its methodologies and how does one “do” academic journalism?

    I’m 12 weeks into this new career, and it’s already being said that I’m “off to a slow start.” This article was a godsend. If journalism researchers have such difficulty defining journalism research methods, then it is not surprising that finding a niche in journalism research would be a tortuous journey for a former scientist.

    I’m dismayed, however, to find that this website has been dormant since 2012. If any of you are still out there, I’d love to strike up a dialog about what exactly journalism research is. Thank you in advance for your help.

    • Hi – We are still here and conversations about research journalism are ongoing. Three important recent developments are that the mid-2015 edition of Asia Pacific Media Educator was devoted to the topic; that the Frontline section of the Pacific Journalism Review (PJR) has published several articles produced by using journalism as a research methodology; and thirdly that the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia has formally published a definition of journalism research that acknowledges it.
      Both this journal and PJR are interested in publishing pieces produced in this way, so hang in there. It can be done. There is a support network available if you are interested in doing this type of research.
      Best regards,

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. What is research journalism? | foxspot89
  2. A Content Methodology Primer | Contents Magazine | Communication Advancement
  3. Further Thoughts and Reflections About Media Narratives |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: