A Review of the Participant Observation Method in Journalism: Designing and Reporting

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Soo Young Shin
Serena Miller


The participant observation method involves numerous methodological competencies and procedures, yet no systematic research has been found to date that evaluates the qualitative practice. The method has played a foundational role in the field of journalism and is growing in use among researchers. Despite its contributions to knowledge about organizations, movements, and cultures, the procedures that encompass the method may be unfamiliar or unclear for some researchers according to the literature. The study analyzed journalism researchers’ reporting of methodological information in studies involving news contexts and assessed scholars’ adherence to methodological reporting best practices in 150 journal articles. The results showed participant observation researchers employed data trustworthiness techniques by primarily using qualitative formal interviews and they also provided site selection logic. The results, however, also showed evidence of methodological conceptual ambiguity when referring to participant observation method techniques and low reporting of several specific recommended techniques associated with participation observation. The narrative reflects our desire to help other researchers learn more about the method, while also encouraging methodological transparency to improve the collective understanding of the method. We put forth eight participant observation reporting recommendations rooted in anthropology and sociology to consider when reporting methodological practices. The hope is this introduction and the proposed measures will initiate discussions and support community around the practice of participant observation.

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