Ever since I began my career in journalism as a freelance writer, I enjoyed expressing ideas about society and people in non-fiction essays and analyses. Whether through commentary or well-researched articles, there was always a story to be told, whether through data or stories. I had taken a break for a few years due to the struggle of the press in employment only to return as I decided to pursue a master’s degree. I chose an MA in sociology specifically because I saw it as a tool that would help expand and build out my journalistic input as a whole.
But why sociology?
Sociology and Journalism’s Similarities
While some might find such notions a bit generous, it is worth noting the extensive similarities between the two platforms. Both mediums focus on understanding groups of people and societies. Both strive to take data and people, turning them into stories and trends that will hopefully mean something. Both aim to make a complex world understandable.
One can simply look at political reporting as an example. Journalists are inundated with new polls and data daily, whether it is the results of a presidential election, or information gathered on what people think about churches or stay-at-home orders. While much of this data can speak for itself, it really is just a moment in time. Evidence shows that polling results can change significantly from month to month or week to week. What journalists do is take trends and patterns of data and look at why they make sense.
The same can be said of sociologists. A good sociologist can turn survey data, content analysis, or even interviews into an essential and robust research point and hopefully reflect meaningful patterns. Perhaps, it is turning voting patterns into sociological categories. Maybe it is seeing how or why people from an urban area would attend church, as compared to rural voters. Perhaps, it is making strides to understand the variables that make LGBT acceptance harder among African Americans. Regardless of what the data says, there is always a story.
The struggles Between the Two
That isn’t to say the two are synonymous. There are several points where there are severe disagreements about the two. Sociologists find an issue with journalism’s propensity to push a narrative quickly, twist it, post it without fact-checking, or run it past some form of the academic board. Journalists may see the work of sociologists arriving at a point when the news cycle has moved on. The sociologist’s work may also be inaccessible and reliant on technical terminology, making it difficult for non-academics to realize what the information says about society.
These are absolutely legitimate concerns that should be considered. It’s also likely why, when I joined my master’s program, my advisor was surprised to see it being used to pursue a career in media. In fact, she said she was unaware of anyone else with similar pursuits passing through her program. But perhaps that’s because of this separation of the domains of knowledge.
In the mid-20th century, a conversation was occurring among professional sociologists about making their information applicable. Many sociologists were more prone to promote their ideas solely in the realm of the expert. Sociological work was written for sociologists. But some individuals made strides to develop a more ‘public’ approach to sociology, where it would be accessible for the public. This was a notion heavily promoted by American Sociologist Association president Michael Buroway.
While Buroway was not directly advocating for journalists to become sociologists or vice versa, his work does offer a justification for making sociology applicable and accessible. Too often, the terms and theories of sociology are challenging to grasp, especially if the reader hasn’t at least taken an intro-level sociology course. What journalists can do for sociology is make the more obtuse and enigmatic theories applicable and understandable. The average soccer mom may not understand the necessity of defining the difference between gender and sex. Still, they can realize stories of how feminine and masculine attributes might express themselves through the way boys and girls play.
In the same way, sociology can provide the lenses through which to look at the social systems of the day. A sociologist can efficiently and meaningfully define what socialism is and is not, rather than allow the political talking points of a single campaign in the United States to describe it. A sociological mind can enable writers and reporters to really see trends and patterns in the greater scheme rather than shrinking and fixating on a singular series of ideas that may or may not be prevalent.