Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Researching or reporting -- revelations from the field: Leslie Dodson at TEDxBOULDER

Difficulty: 0

Transcriber: Denise RQ Reviewer: Callum Downs

I just want to start with a little bit of a word of warning and that is

my job here tonight it's to be a little bit of a doctor bring me down.

So bear with me for a few minutes, and know that after this,

things will get lighter and brighter.

Let's start.

I know that many of you have heard the traveler's adage,

"Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints."

Well, I'm going to say

I don't think that's either as benign or as simple as it sounds,

particularly for those of us in industries

who are portraying people in poor countries, in developing countries

and portraying the poor.

And those of us in those industries

are reporters, researchers, and people working for NGOs;

I suspect there are a lot of us in those industries in the audience.

We are going overseas and bringing back pictures like these:

of the utterly distressed,

or the displaced,

or the hungry,

or the child labor,

or the exotic.

Now Susan Sontag reminds us

that photographs in part help define what we have the right to observe,

but more importantly,

they are an ethics of seeing,

and I think right now, is a good time to review our ethics of seeing

as our industries of reporting, and research and NGO work

are collapsing and changing

in part by what it's been happening in the economy,

but it's making us forge new relationships.

And those new relationships have some fuzzy boundaries.

I worked at the edge of some of these fuzzy boundaries

and I want to share with you some of my observations.

My ethics of seeing is informed by 25 years as a reporter

covering emerging economies and international relations.

I believe in a free and independent press.

I believe that journalism is a public good.

But it's getting harder to do that job,

in part because of the massive layoffs,

because the budgets for international reporting aren't there anymore,

new technologies and new platforms begging new content,

and there are a lot of new journalisms.

There is activist journalism, humanitarian journalism, peace journalism,

and we are all looking to cover the important stories of our time.

So we are going to NGOs and asking them if we can embed in their projects.

This is in part because they are doing important work in interesting places.

That's one example here:

this is a project I worked on in the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.

NGOs understand the benefits of having reporters tag along on their team.

They need the publicity, they are under tremendous pressure,

they are competing in a very crowded market for compassion.

So they are also looking to reporters and to hire freelance reporters

to help them develop their public relations material

and their media material.

Now, researchers are also under pressure.

They're under pressure to communicate their science outside of the academy.

So they're collaborating with reporters

because for many researchers is difficult to write a simple story or a clear story.

And the benefit for reporters

is that covering field research is some of the best work out there.

You not only get to cover science,

but you get to meet interesting scientists,

like my PhD adviser Revi Sterling;

She's one of the magic research high tops there.

And it was in a discussion with Revi

that brought us to the edge of the researcher and reporter,

that fuzzy boundary.

And I said to her,

"I was looking forward to going to developing countries

and doing research and covering stories at the same time."

She said, "I don't think so, girlfriend."

That confusion, mutual confusion,

drove us to publish a paper on the conflicting ethics

and the contradictory practices of research and reporting.

We started with the understanding

that researchers and reporters are distant cousins

equally story tellers and social analysts.

But we don't see nor portray developing communities the same way.

Here's a very classic example: this is Somalia 1992.

It could be Somalia today.

And this is a standard operating procedure

for much of the news video and the news pictures that you see,

where a group of reporters will be trucked in,

escorted to the site of a disaster,

they'll produce their material, take their pictures, get their interviews,

and then they will be escorted out.

This is decidedly not a research setting.

Sometimes, we are working on feature stories.

This is an image I took of a woman

in Bhongir village in Andhra Pradesh in India.

She is at a micro-finance meeting.

It's a terrific story.

What is important here is that she is identifiable.

You can see her face.

This also is not a research picture.

This is much more representative of a research picture.

It's a research site: you see young women accessing new technologies.

It's more of a time stamp, it's a documentation of research.

I couldn't use this for news.

It doesn't tell enough, and it wouldn't sell.

But then, the differences are even deeper than that.

Revi and I analyzed some of the mandates that researchers are under,

they are under some very strict rules

governed by their university research review boards

when it comes to content and confidentiality.

Researchers are mandated to acquire a document of informed consent,

while as a reporter, if I hang a microphone on someone,

that is consent.

And when it comes to creating the story, I'll fact check as a reporter,

but I don't invite company to create that story.

Whereas social scientists, researchers, and particularly participatory researchers

will often work on constructing the narrative with the community.

And when it comes to paying for information,

checkbook journalism is roundly discouraged.

In part because of the bias it introduces in the kind of information you get.

But social scientists understand that people's time is valuable

so they pay them for that time.

While journalists are well-placed to convey

the beauty of the scientific process - and I would add the NGO process -

what about the words?

What happens if a research project is not particularly well designed

or an NGO project doesn't fulfill its goals?

Or the other kind of words;

that happens after dark when the drinks happen.

Research environments, and reporting,

trips and NGOs projects are very intimate environments;

you make good friends while you are doing good work,

but there is a little bit of Johnnie Walker journalism after dark

and what happens to that line between embedded and inbedded?

What do you do with the odd and odious behavior?

The point is that you'll want to negotiate in advance

what is on the record or off the record.

I will turn now to some NGO imagery

which will be familiar to some of you in this audience.


For about 70 cents, you can buy a can of soda.

Regular or diet.

In Ethiopia, for just 70 cents a day,

you can feed a child like Jaamal nourishing meals.

For about 70 cents, you can also buy a cup of coffee.

In Guatemala, for 70 cents a day,

you can help a child like Vilma get the clothes she needs to attend school.

Leslie Dodson: There is some very common imagery

that's been around for 40 years.

That's part of Sally Struthers' famine campaign.

Some of it is very familiar; it's the Madonna and child.

Women and children are very effective in terms of NGO campaigns.

We've been looking at this imagery for a long time,

for hundreds and hundreds of years; the Madonna and child.

Here is [Duccio],

and here is Michelangelo.

My concern is: are we one noting the genders in our narratives of poverty

in developing communities?

Do we have women as victims and are men only the perpetrators?

The guys with the AK 47s or the boys soldiers?

Because that doesn't leave room for stories like:

the man who is selling ice-cream at the refuge camp

in Southern Sudan, where we did a project.

Or the stories of the men who are working on the bridge over the Blue Nile.

I wonder,

are these stories inconvenient to our narratives?

And what about this narrative?

This is a for profit game,

and its aim is to make development fun.

One question is did they inadvertently make fun of?

Another set of questions is what are the rights of these children?

What rights of publicity or privacy do they have?

Did they get paid? Should they get paid?

Should they share their profit?

This is a for profit game.

Did they sign talent wavers?

I have to use these when I'm working with NGOs

and documentary film makers here in the States.

In the States, we take our right to privacy and publicity very seriously.

So what is it about getting on a long, whole flight

that makes these rights vaporize?

I don't want to just pick on our friends in the gaming arts,

I'll turn to the graphic arts where we often see

these monolithic, homogeneous stories about the great country of Africa.

But Africa is not a country, it's a continent.

It's 54 countries and thousands and thousands of languages.

So my question is is this imagery productive?

Or is it reductive?

I know that is popular.

We have USAID just launched their campaign "Forward" --

FWD: Famine War and Drought.

And by looking at it,

you'd think that was happening all the time, all over Africa,

but this is about what's happening in the Horn of Africa.

And I'm still trying to make sense of Africa in a piece of Wonder Bread.

I'm wondering about that.

Germaine Greer has wondered about the same things and she says,

"At breakfast and at dinner,

we can sharpen our own appetites with a plentiful dose

of the pornography of war, genocide, destitution, and disease."

She is right.

We have sharpened our appetites, but we can also sharpen our insights.

It is not always war, insurrection, and disease.

This is a picture out of South Sudan

just a couple of months before the new country was born.

I will continue to work as a researcher and a reporter in developing countries,

but I do it with an altered ethic of seeing:

I ask myself whether my pictures are pandering,

whether they contribute to stereotypes,

whether the images match the message,

and am I complacent, or am I complicit?

Thank you


The Description of Researching or reporting -- revelations from the field: Leslie Dodson at TEDxBOULDER