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On the surface at least, journalists and qualitative researchers appear to have much in common. Both produce descriptive accounts of issues and events, relying on similar methods to collect information, such as interviews and public records. Despite their similarities, however, journalists and qualitative researchers differ in significant ways, especially the overall purpose of their respective work.
Issues and Events
Journalists and qualitative researchers both focus on observing and chronicling issues, events and phenomena around the world, whether in politics, business, the arts or other areas of life. Journalists, however, approach events with an emphasis on newsmakers, reporting these events to viewers and readers. Newsworthy events generally include familiar people and places, unusual events and issues that impact much of society. Examples of newsworthy events include the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the 2008 financial crisis; and presidential elections. In contrast to journalists, qualitative research is less event-driven. Rather than examine a specific terrorist attack or presidential election, qualitative researchers might analyze public responses to terrorist attacks or voters' perceptions of presidential candidates.
Description vs. Analysis
Journalists gather information to describe a significant event and present it in a way that tells a story to the audience, describing what happened and who was involved. Qualitative research, with its emphasis on collecting nonquantifiable data, is descriptive as well, but directed toward analyzing a phenomenon rather than giving a narrative of events. Narrative is an element of qualitative research, but researchers use narrative information as data, comparing accounts to uncover patterns in the behaviors, beliefs and attitudes of research subjects.
The time frame in which journalists and qualitative researchers work is another important factor. Because news occurs on a daily basis, journalists work under tight deadlines, often needing to produce a completed story within a day or two. The State University of New York at Stony Brook observes that this means journalists often report with less evidence than qualitative researchers. In contrast, qualitative researchers often immerse themselves in field research for months or even years, collecting data through interviews, documents and observation, then analyzing the information, which often leads to further data collection.
Unlike journalists, qualitative research has a theoretical basis. Researchers in education, social sciences and other disciplines ground their work in a theoretical foundation, hoping to expand the body of knowledge. The State University of New York at Stony Brook points out that the work of journalists does not have this theoretical grounding and is more focused on selling newspapers or attracting viewers. This sometimes limits what journalists can say in their news reports.
Shane Hall is a writer and research analyst with more than 20 years of experience. His work has appeared in "Brookings Papers on Education Policy," "Population and Development" and various Texas newspapers. Hall has a Doctor of Philosophy in political economy and is a former college instructor of economics and political science.