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On collaborating with journalists

FEMA trailers at an auction in Hammond, Louisiana (Nick Shapiro)

Last spring I found myself in rural Alabama, sitting between an investigative journalist and a candid salesman I’ll call Sid, who was hawking used and potentially contaminated former FEMA trailers to those displaced by a series of tornados. These trailers had originally been issued by the federal government after Hurricane Katrina and were found to contain elevated levels of formaldehyde.  Over 150,000 of these onetime emergency housing units were recalled and they rotted away on federal storage lots for several years before being auctioned off by the government to private buyers. “NOT TO BE USED FOR HOUSING” stickers were placed in their windows and all sales were made with the caveat that they could not be resold as homes—resellers could face a potential five year prison sentence for doing so.

Talking to Sid in his showroom, he downplayed the use of his trailers as residences, suggesting they were primarily being used for recreational purposes despite the fact that he was using the FEMA insignia on his signs to draw in those struck by calamity.  As we spoke, an older man shakily walked in and declared to the room, “I need a home,” with wide, shell-shocked eyes. Sid accepted our knowing looks with a small bow of his head before rushing off to show his new customer the available models. When he returned, he reasoned with us, “people can’t do no better. You got people homeless, sleep under doggone bridges. Where you think they gonna stay?”

There is a lot more of this story to tell, as I heard Sid’s assumption—that housing should unequivocally be prioritized over health—tumble from the mouths of FEMA trailer resellers across the country.  These rural entrepreneurs, spanning every corner of the US, sold their FEMA trailers to those dispossessed by the less concentrated housing crises of rural and suburban poverty. But I don’t need to lay all the details out here because the baseline story has already been written, by the journalist Ariella Cohen, and is a mouse-click away, should you want it. (Wait! Don’t click away just yet. This is about to get relevant!)

Mississippi FEMA mobile home resident with her medications (Nick Shapiro)

Ariella and I met that winter in New Orleans. She was looking for a good lead and I had been chronicling the social lives of these infamous housing units for over a year as part of my PhD dissertation and was looking for company in the caper. Eventually she would visit some of my fieldsites, upon invitation from my informants, and she would in turn open up new fieldsites for me. Her journalistic willingness to stride up to the trailer doors of strangers and cold-call the most pugnacious of trailer resellers expedited the untangling of the large-scale and distributed worlds of these trailers. What unfolded was almost a good cop/bad cop dynamic as I ask questions less aggressively, am much more timid and am bound by a much more restrictive code of ethics.

Collaborating with someone bearing a less exacting professional code does not mean that your work has to become less ethical, just more awkward. Before interviewing anyone we would often have to perform a Laurel & Hardy routine of laying out the various differences in confidentiality between talking to me and talking to Ariella and do so at such length that sources would interrupt us with their approval.  Ariella would ask a factual line of questions first and then I would either come back on my own later or ask her to leave before I struck up my more open ended line of questioning or a symptoms survey for trailer inhabitants.

Collaborating with a reporter expedited the speed of my research, increased the confidence of my informants and helped far-flung FEMA trailer residents find me to tell me there story. For example, when I was in Nebraska to meet with an informant, I was met by a local camera crew and featured on the evening news. Despite my inarticulateness and comedic facial over-expression, a secondary informant, who was previously very reluctant to meet, had seen me on TV and decided I was worth a chat. Following the posting of that video online, a FEMA trailer inhabitant in Indiana commented with her story and I later was able to drive out and meet with her family.

I could go on, and the point of this post is not to pat myself on the back for getting on small town TV during a slow news day or going on a series of road trips with an investigative journalist, but to point out that the benefit of working with the news media extends far beyond simply ‘getting the word out.’

The opportunity to work with serious journalists is increasing as non-profit online investigative news expands into the space left by receding daily newspapers or constitutes new investigative realms altogether, such as ProPublica. The Investigative News Network (INN) is a good first stop when perusing for a potential collaborator as they span sixty different organizations across North America.  American Public Media has developed a Public Insight Network (PIN) of over 170,000 informed individuals that are interested in sharing their experiences, which could be an excellent means for meeting informants when studying issues that don’t have common spaces or identities (it seems to work best for urban, wired-in informants, so it turned up bupkis for me). 

With every collaboration there are downsides. Reporters are often juggling multiple stories at the same time and rapid deadlines. If the facts aren’t falling into place after a little bit of boots-on-the-ground reporting, the story could easily end up in the rubbish bin—this happened to me twice when dealing with larger media outlets.  Even if they do stay with the story, their high intensity workday and juggling of various stories can lead them to be distractible, to say the least. And finally, very long-term projects can be difficult, because when reporters move between employers they often shift beats. This pacing can be a bit mismatched to academics as we stay with our populations of study regardless of our institutional affiliations and dedicate entire decades of our lives to particular questions.

One of the upsides of the clip at which reporters operate is that they can unlock money much faster than possible in the academy. For breaking events or big stories, travel grants can be as easy as making a phone call, which can be helpful to the strapped-for-cash grad student. There are also some experimental news funding techniques that are currently underway.  Spot.us is attempting to create a platform for community supported reporting, kind of like a Kickstarter for reporting. And here is the gratuitous plug: Ariella and I have a pitch up on spot.us. Before you close the tab with a sense of betrayal, know that I wouldn’t tack this on at the end if I was only trying to pick your pocket.

The project is a mix of data journalism, critical geography, a way to meet more informants and a health surveillance prototype for the indoor air quality of manufactured homes. You can check it out here, or email me with questions. Admittedly, I’m the only one to have donated so far.  I’m coming to my colleagues for support (or criticism) first to see if such a thing as community supported medical anthropology is possible, and not just the guilt-trip-funding-by-friends-and-family that is most Kickstarters.

Getting academics to pitch in a few bucks is an aside. The point of this post is that collaborating with journalists is probably easier than ever and, at least in my opinion, it enriches ethnography while informing the public. Of course, teaming-up with a news crew is not for every project or for every personality. Yet, the work of this blog’s readership appears to be particularly ripe for such joint ventures. Medical anthropological or medical sociological inquiries often carry high stakes (health), bring into relief overlooked considerations or unknown happenings and produce unique insights, all qualities that are attractive to reporters and often signal a large-scale dilemma that would perhaps be best addressed not by the lone academic but by collaborative scrutiny.

Not only does joining forces with journalists help us social scientists do our work, but also it makes for good journalism. Ariella’s first article on the FEMA trailers won an Excellence in Journalism award from the Press Club of New Orleans. Her second article was picked up by a show on NPR.   Hooked-in anthropologists make great tipsters, and our divergent methodologies yield more evocative conversations with news sources. The mutual benefit is patent; the mutual interest is what remains unclear.

 

Nick Shapiro is a medical anthropology Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Oxford (UK). He has been studying the FEMA trailers for the last three years using ethnography, digital cartography and by running free chemical analyses of their indoor air.


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