Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Research needs

Buried in yesterday's New York Times story about the discovery that the late civil rights photographer Ernest Withers was an FBI informant was an equally interesting story about journalism, and about research more generally. The NYT credited the Memphis Commercial Appeal with breaking the story, and mentions that it was the result of a two-year investigation. Reading the NYT article carefully, it appears that the discovery that Withers was an informant was purely accidental--an FBI clerk apparently failed to redact his name on a few documents--which leads me to assume that the original focus of the Commercial Appeal's investigation wasn't Withers at all.

Stories like this one require serious journalists, working for papers that are interested in issues that may seem only "local" or "regional," and that are willing to pay them for years-long investigations not knowing for sure what they'll turn up. And of course, academia needs this, too: this is why scholars need time (and money), sometimes for many years, sometimes working on seemingly minor issues and without much to show for it. Yes, of course: we should expect them to be able to provide some kind of accounting for their time and efforts. But you can't make new discoveries--or come up with new ideas or interpretations--by fiat or on a schedule. You hire trained professionals, you let them make a case for their projects, and then you trust them.


michele said...

Hear! Hear!

anthony grafton said...

And that's why strict corporate models work so badly for journalism, and even worse for universities. Great post.