News/research from teacher-journalist Robert J. Ballantyne

Learning how to be a journalist within the academy

As I move forward with academic research, how do I make sure my work reaches a wider audience?

Illustration by Robert J. Ballantyne

Like many post-pandemic university graduates, I worried about the prospects of finding a job. Luckily, before The World Changed, I applied to several graduate programs and had the option to continue my studies as a masters student while I searched for summer work.

One of the graduate courses that I was most excited about was “Introduction to Research in Education.” As a former investigative journalist, the research process was always my favourite part of the job, and as I earned my Bachelor of Education over the past two years, I gravitated towards academic research, searching databases for precedence and novel ideas, and codifying peer-reviewed works for papers. At this stage, however, I was relatively self-taught, and the opportunity to formally learn the academic research process step-by-step seemed exciting.

As I looked over the course syllabus, I was initially intimidated by it. I had been instinctual about it, but the prospect of fitting my ideas into “research paradigms” and “qualitative” or “quantitative” frameworks seemed daunting. Unlike undergraduate work, where I could cram and recite, I quickly learned in graduate studies that I could not slack off intellectually anymore — I had to study.

Investigative research as academic research

While I studied the academic research process, I reflected on how fortunate I was to start my broadcast journalism career at CBC’s Marketplace, and how it prepared me for this work. I joined the investigative consumer show as a researcher, where I was required to create in depth written reports for both story pitches and stories put into production. In addition to conceptualizing a TV report, I had to conduct database searches, provide supporting research, and include a set of transcribed interviews with potential sources — sometimes I did dozens of phone or in-person interviews for stories that never went to air, and then many more for the ones that did.

Through the show’s research process, I experienced peer review, too. Every report I presented at Marketplace was intensely scrutinized in story meetings with other journalists and my senior and executive producers. Part of this dissection of my work — more like a vivisection — was due to the competitive nature of the field, but also justified, as there was limited air time, and my reports were in competition with my colleagues’ reports who wanted their stories on TV as badly as I did. Later, as a producer, criticism of my work only intensified, along with my ethical responsibilities, layering CBC corporate executive and legal review, and of course, I was accountable to our sources and audience after it aired. The audience part was both satisfying and terrifying, especially when you face the possibility of over one million viewers being able to file a complaint or even a lawsuit about your investigation the next day.

In academic research, just as in journalism, my references needed to be carefully selected and their claims conscientiously considered. However, instead of a look of mass disapproval in a boardroom if I presented an unappealing argument, this time I was going to face an even more terrifying evaluation: a final grade.

Finding a voice in academia

While I initially struggled with formatting my writing to fit academic expectations, I found the process similar to translation. There are enough similarities between investigative journalism and education research to have a head start, but there were many unexpected differences, too.

The main difference, obviously, is in the accessibility of the writing. To have a career in academia, I need to get my work published in academic journals. There is a dense format there that I must adhere to, which I don’t resist as something meant to shut down creativity, as it is structured in a way that makes it easier for other academics to scan and share content.

Unfortunately, I think I have made many style sacrifices in the wrong direction in wanting to pursue academic research over these past two years. My writing has become denser and reliant on precedence, as opposed to being focused on clarity and the development of my own conclusions. In terms of my style, I currently feel trapped between two worlds, existing in a painful adolescence as a writer.

My primary concern now is how to develop my own voice within the academy — concurrently with my voice as a journalist. Frankly, I know I will not be satisfied in the long-term if only a small group of people are accessing and evaluating my work. I know there are projects like The Conversation which present academic writing in a populist format, but it is not yet considered authoritative. Beyond reaching a wide audience, the increased scrutiny that comes with it is important, too. As scary as it often was to present research to a large audience as I did at the CBC, there is no doubt that this increased accountability made me a better journalist and researcher.

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