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Our first story – The Narrogin Feud

This week is a week of firsts. The journal website is being finalised as I type and the first story written for Research Journalism is running on Crikey.

The story is a five part series on a family feud raging in the Indigenous Noongar community of small town in the south west of Western Australia. Crikey is running the five articles over this week and next, but that’s not all there is to this story.

As a piece of academic writing it needed to be more than that. The story will soon also be posted on the new Research Journalism site and there the five articles will be accompanied by an introduction, explaining the importance of this kind of coverage and the methods of research used – including a discussion about their provenance and their limitations. In the academic version, each of the five articles will be followed by a list of footnotes detailing the sources of the information used and the pieces will be followed by an exegesis that locates the points raised by the Noongars of Narrogin within broader debates about Indigenous Issues in Australia.

The article, as it will run on Research Journalism, was peer reviewed by three journalism academics. Their task was a difficult one as they had no standard against which to judge the article. For the past few decades journalism has not been considered to be an academic form of writing, only exegesis style writing about journalism has been, and so to satisfy concerns about sufficient rigour this article does both. The result of this is that it is long. One reviewer maintained that he thought it was too long, but it’s early days for this kind of writing.

As a group of academics we are still collectively establishing the norms of this genre. The process of negotiation about what should and shouldn’t be included will proceed as new articles are submitted and over time we will settle into its conventions.

For now though, it’s a first and that in itself is an achievement.

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A couple of good questions

This week I’ve had an email conversation with a journalism academic keen to come to grips with where writing for Research Journalism will sit in relation to her other journalism and academic work.

She asked good questions about ethics and peer review  that I answered by going back to conversations I’ve had with others about the journal. I thought they were worth sharing, edited for brevity, for others who may be wondering about the same things, or who may want to comment on these editorial decisions.

Q:

I’m thinking of submitting a script from a radio documentary I co-produced [a few years ago] that won a Walkley for radio documentary. It has a great transcript but the project was not run through ethics at my university. I am a .5 appointment and the fuss about research and practice based work has not been encouraging – so I have always argued that my ABC productions are separate from my [university] job and then argued that they count as research. If you find this confusing, well so do I but for some time it has satisfied [the university] because it means they don’t fund my research but count it for their funding … or something like that.

A:

The main problem is not with the ethics committee, but with the fact that the work can’t be blind peer reviewed because your name is already firmly attached to it.

As an editor I am not obliged to ask about ethics approval. And I would take an article from a freelance journalist who is not attached to a university without requiring her to find an HREC, so if you submit as an individual rather than as an employee of your university then that is fine. Your university can wrestle with its own conscience about whether it will or won’t “count” it as research, despite the lack of HREC approval. But I suspect that it will count it.

 I do want to get on well with HRECs though, so I am asking all writers to make a clear declaration about ethics approvals. If you didn’t get approval just state that that is the case and that you followed MEAA ethics (if you did, and if not why not). The upshot of this is that, as with journalism, if you have been unethical it will come back on you, not on me or your university’s HREC.

The idea of the journal is that it will be publishing new work, and getting it blind peer reviewed by three journalism academics before it runs in the mainstream media. This is meant to ensure that the quality is high, and the peer review process actually improves the quality, it doesn’t just check it. (You get three amazing people reading your work and advising you about how it can be better).

As such, I am more interested in whatever you are working on now, than something that you produced a few years ago, especially as it has already had a good run.

Q:

Thanks for the clarification about the ethics.  

However – I don’t know if the issue of the peer review is quite as straightforward.  

Program producers broadcasting nationally on the ABC might have considerable problems planning broadcast dates around blind peer reviews.  I really am not trying to be picky and value the opportunity to publish professional work in a journal with an important task but I am struggling a bit.

For example the latest documentary I worked on went to air last Sunday and we finished editing it on the Saturday – the day before. I realise that there are very few sane people who listen to documentaries on ABC Radio National – but some of them COULD be journalism academics.

I suppose that peer review could happen offshore to avoid any chance of listeners but then there is the internet and podcasts. The point is that because of news values the broadcast would precede any academic journal submission – especially where there is a considerable amount of investigation that requires legal scrutiny by the broadcaster.

I don’t think that I am unusual in my working habits and, if I am missing something obvious here, I would welcome your advice.

A:

I think the best way to operate may be for you to work in two mediums, because it is important that your work for the journal is a significant new contribution not just a re-use of material produced for other reasons.

 So, if you are investigating a topic for ABC radio, do your investigation and keep track your sources etc, make your radio piece and let it go to air, with your name on it, as ABC requires. Then use your interviews and your research to write a text piece that could be longer and more detailed than the radio piece, and wrap around it an exegesis about why it was an important topic, the methodology you used, limitations, significance etc.

 Don’t mention that you were the author of the piece that ran on the ABC. Just make it a good stand alone piece that you or a colleague or another journalist could have done. This piece can then be genuinely blind peer reviewed and published in Research Journalism, and at the point of publication, where the blind can be lifted, we can link it to the ABC piece on the ABC website, or we can attach the ABC sound file to the piece. If at that point the ABC want to attach the Research Journalism piece to the original piece, or commission you to do a follow up radio piece, that’s all possible too.

 Post by Kayt Davies (Editor)

A new kind of academic journalism

It’s easy to lay out a persuasive argument about why the journalists working in universities should be working on real journalism, using their industry skills honed through teaching, to do excellent investigative journalism. The commercial media is struggling to fund this kind of journalism and yet it is widely accepted that a free and vigilant press is cornerstone of a healthy democracy.

With the protection of academic freedom built into the university system this would not be like the government-funded media of China or North Korea. It is a new way that the Australian Government could support the media without giving handouts to corporations.

There are around 200 journalism academics working in Australia. Most are required to write two journal or conference papers a year that count towards their university’s research output tally. This means their research must be peer reviewed and published. Currently the only peer reviewed publications available to them are about journalism. There are no journals that publish journalism, only reflections and research about journalism. The other option, taken up by some, is to write books.

This state of affairs has prompted thoughts about starting new journals that would subject the journalism they publish to a rigorous peer review process and publish the material in a way that the commercial media can use as a source. If this could be done in a way that satisfies the research requirements of the universities, and provides a new source of quality journalism, a win-win solution will have been found.

Research Journalism is the first of this new breed of journal.