Journalism vs. Ethnography: Checking the Facts

Magnifying glass looking at facts

There is often a fair similarity between certain long-form journalism and ethnography, both of which involve close observation and description of a subject community or group. For example, Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, follows the lives of near-destitute trash-pickers in the Mumbai neighborhood Annawadi. It might well be considered an ethnography, save for the absence of sociological theory and her use of real names. But despite their narrative similarity, journalism and ethnography differ when it comes to setting and enforcing ethical standards. Journalism demands accuracy, even regarding small details. In ideal circumstances – not always available in an age of shrinking circulation and tightening budgets – journalists are fact-checked by their editors to ensure that every truth-claim can be confirmed. Ethnographers, in contrast, freely change details in order to anonymize their research subjects and locations, and they are almost never subject to fact-checking by editors or anyone else, usually insisting that they can be taken at their word. Journalist sometimes also offer anonymity to sources, but seldom if ever in the across-the-board manner of ethnography, and never engaging in wholesale alteration of facts.

The latest, and perhaps the clearest, example of journalism’s adherence to factual accuracy comes in the form of a retraction by The Atlantic. The article in question, written by Ruth Shalit Barrett, was titled “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents.” It reported on the “small world of affluent sports families along the Gold Coast of Connecticut” who pushed their children to excel in fencing, squash, and other niche sports that are evidently prized by the Ivy League schools and other elite colleges and universities. Some incidents described in the article, such as a severe injury purportedly suffered by a youngster in a fencing tournament, seemed implausible to Washington Post media reporter Eric Wemple. He relayed his doubts – about “factual problems and misleading passages” to the editors at The Atlantic.

The editors did the right thing. They sent the entire article back to their fact-checking department, which had confirmed its details prior to publication. Upon reinvestigation, The Atlantic discovered a slew of inaccuracies. The main character in the story, a woman pseudonymously named “Sloane,” was said in the original article to have three daughters and a son. It turned out, however, that the son was an imaginary detail, allegedly added to preserve the anonymity of Sloane and her daughters (and thus without compromising the daughters’ chances of admission to Ivy League schools). There were other discrepancies as well. The fencing injury to Sloane’s daughter – which had initially piqued Wemple’s curiosity – had been seriously exaggerated. The home of another family had been moved from Greenwich, Connecticut, to another town in Fairfield County that aligned better with the article’s narrative. The size of admittedly elaborate backyard hockey rinks had been expanded to Olympic proportions.

The factual misstatements may seem trivial, but they violated the The Atlantic’s strict standards. Name changing was an acceptable form of anonymization, but the creation of a nonexistent family member was not. As the editors explained in an 800-word statement, “We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author, and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.” Drawing a distinction between retraction and removal, The Atlantic, for the sake of transparency, made a PDF of the original article available on its website, but removed it from the on line issue of the magazine.

The Atlantic’s response to Wemple’s inquiry stands in sharp contrast to my own experience questioning the accuracy of an ethnography. Although I will not repeat the specifics, or name the book and author in question (which have been subject to enough controversy) suffice it to say that in 2015 I wrote a book review pointing out numerous factual implausibilities and discrepancies in a then widely praised and highly regarded urban ethnography. Two years later, I published my own book recounting many of the same problematic incidents, with additional fact checking showing them to be greatly embellished or flatly untrue. (I also fact checked many other ethnographies, with mixed results.)

The reaction in the broader ethnography and sociology community was largely defensive. With some notable exceptions, the very concept of fact checking was rejected, under the rationale that ethnography aimed for larger truths, as opposed to reporting discrete facts. Confronted with my evidence that certain incidents were highly unlikely to have happened as described, some sociologists “imagined” additional circumstances, some of which verged on conspiracy theories, to justify believing the original account. Others accused critics of ethnography – I was not the only one – of ill-will and suspect motives.

The one thing that no ethnographer did, however, was actually investigate my conclusions. I had, for example, cast doubt on a series of incidents said to have occurred in public at a large hospital in a major city. My own research, which included reviewing contemporaneous documentation and interviewing eight people with knowledge and information about every potential hospital’s operations, established that the events could not have taken place as described, and probably not at all.

Unlike the journalists at The Atlantic, the ethnography profession showed precisely zero interest in determining the true facts, one way or the other. It would have been a simple matter for a professor or graduate student to interview subjects at the relevant hospitals – which I named in my book – located in a large city, within easy commuting distance of at least a half dozen universities with well-regarded sociology departments. If the events in question had actually occurred, or if they had even been possible, it would have taken relatively little effort to prove me wrong, if indeed I was wrong. But it appears that no one among my critics ever made the effort to find out (or if someone did, the results were never announced, surely for the obvious reason).

As an academic, I am accustomed to vigorous disagreement. As an author, I can live with unfavorable reviews. But as a journalist (and lawyer), it is frankly baffling to me that ethnographers are so resistant to fact checking. Perhaps The Atlantic’s standards – of absolute accuracy – are too high for most ethnographers, or their publishers, to achieve. But it is not too much to ask them to try.

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Steven Lubet

Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and author of Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters, and other books such as 2015's The “Colored Hero” Of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland And The War Against Slavery and Lawyers' Poker: 52 Lessons That Lawyers Can Learn From Card Players. He is the director of the Fred Bartlit Center for Trial Advocacy. He has been living with ME/CFS since 2006.

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