A couple of weeks ago, I was presenting a paper based on my submission for the PhD Seminar Series (which I mention here) to the European Society of Criminology in Bilbao. But I did something naughty, in referencing this book:
The Influencing Machine is a potentially very useful example of good polemic journalism: it's a study of (US) journalism's developments up to the current day, the potential effect it has upon (American) politics and public opinion, and the possible future that new developments in media technology could have on society.
It's also a comic book. Not that I mentioned that at the ESC. But should I have?
This is a debate that's been raging around a lot of 'new media' (particularly things like this very blog). Academic traditionalists dismiss sources like Gladstone as superficial, aimed at the mass market, and untested by peer review. Certainly there's an element of truth to all of these claims, and comic narrative lends itself to providing ease of understanding at the expense of sacrificing the spatial economy of simple text (see Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art (1985). If Gladstone had published her written text as simple prose, then it would probably have been no longer than a journal article, because you can say much less with six-to-twelve panels than with a page of text.
But does that mean we can write off what Gladstone has to say about the state of the media? After all, she herself is a radio journalist, and her book is at least partially an insider's view on the state of news media in her country. If we wrote off all comics as hokey popcorn entertainment for the young (and primarily young male) market, then we'd miss out on a lot of really insightful, thought-provoking non-fiction, such as the deeply personal and methodically observed opinion journalism of Darryl Cunningham (Psychiatric Tales 2011; Science Tales 2012); biting cultural observations of the sort popularised by Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (complete edition compiled 2007); and the art history of Scott McCloud, whose seminal opus Understanding Comics (1994) advocates a reappraisal of the whole medium.
All this is well and good in the abstract, but what does it mean for researchers? It seems to me that the answer is to use new media when - and only when - they have some definite and important relevance to the point you're trying to make. Some thoughts to consider include:
- Is there any respected academic alternative? - More time ago than I'd like to admit I was writing a dissertation about tobacco and cannabis regulation in England and Wales. There are very few academic sources that give an insight into the political history of cannabis, and so I was forced to fall back on a polemical piece of journalism, Martin Booth's strongly pro-legalisation Cannabis: A History (2003). So long as one recognises the faults with this kind of source, then there's nothing wrong with it.
- Does it say anything that academia doesn't? - This is a matter of perspective: anyone writing a Ph. D. will tell you how hard it is to find something that hasn't already been said somewhere in academia. But potential new ways of looking at phenomena are turning up time and again, and new media offer good angles. For instance, one thing that the inherent simplicity of the comic book lends itself to in The Influencing Machine is that it lays out various types of potential journalistic bias very effectively. Adopting that taxonomy for oneself can be a good way of incorporating the material in a way that doesn't undercut the perceived 'academicalness' of your research.
- Can you treat it as an empirical source? - Running a discourse analysis or case study allows one to quote and critically appraise a source at the same time. But this only works if that's what your research is actually meant to be doing. Sticking in a qualitative case study for the heck of it is unlikely to improve your research any.
But then, what do I know? This is only a blog post, after all...