Action-Research in the Real World: How Rolling Stone Magazine Failed

posted Apr 9, 2015, 3:16 PM by peter richmond   [ updated Apr 10, 2015, 12:33 AM by Margaret Riel ]

When I hit the "send" button, finally whisking the final draft of my action research study off to my graduate thesis committee, at first I couldn't understand why, at that moment, the exhilaration I felt dwarfed any emotion I'd ever felt when I'd hit the "send" button on the first drafts of any of my six non-fiction books.

            I did know, with an unusual certainty, that even if my thesis might be proven to have come up flawed and unacceptable, the satisfaction of the journey I had taken could not be erased. It had been a gloriously Buddhic voyage; the joy had been in taking the path, not in reaching the finish line.

            When I'd sent off the first drafts of my books, I'd invariably been quivering with anxiety. When I sent off the action research study, all I could think, strangely, -- me, my own harshest critic throughout a life of journalism -- was, "Well-done."

            Writers of trade books aren't wired to feel good when we send in a finished manuscript. We're supposed to remember everything we'd done wrong, and panic in advance at what our editor will find failing.

            Then why the satisfaction this time around, as I submitted a piece of writing to a team of academics? Because this time around, in producing my  study, I'd used an intellectual rigor, and an action-researcher's precision, that I'd never applied to the research of the other works. I had been precise in my analysis of my data. I'd been thorough in my reflection on what the data suggested. Over the course of the semester of my study, I had taken sound actions in direct response to prompts from the data.

            Even in the case of the two popular biographies I'd published, no editor had ever suggested that I examine my findings as I researched the books. Why would they? In the commercial-writing world, a writer proposing a book earns a cash advance on the strength of the initial thesis: That your subject was the best female singer in the Forties. That the team you're writing about was the best football team of the Seventies. That the football game you're writing a book about was the best football game ever played (to mention a few instances close to home.)

            Make no mistake: Many, many writers of non-fiction books do rigorous research. But a whole lot more come up woefully short. It was only until I'd action-researched and written my first complete study that I realized that if I'd applied that same exacting degree of action-research to the books, they'd have been more proud-making.

            "If you feel that everything is going as you wish," Jean McNiff wrote in 1988, in Action Research: Principles and Practice, "you need to produce evidence to show why this is so. If you feel it is less than satisfactory, you need to do something about it and explain what you are doing." I wish I'd come across those words when I started my first book one year after she'd written hers.

             Soon after I hit that "send" button this time, I told a friend, "I'm convinced: Every author out there in the popular marketplace should be required to write an action-research study before they research their next book" -- if only to realize the their obligation is to the truth, not to their original book-pitch.

             It's hard not to wonder, this week in particular, how things could have been different had the writer and editors of Rolling Stone magazine, once revered for solid journalism as well as music journalism, listened to McNiff and all of her colleagues who mandate that the examination of one's own practice is as essential as the study of the subject of a magazine article.

            In a nutshell: last November, Rolling Stone ran an extensive expose of a woman having been being sexually assaulted on the campus of the University of Virginia in 2012 year. Its publication resulted in universal outrage, as it should have -- had the account been true.

            It was not. The writer did not verify her sources' claims. She did not question the veracity of what she'd been told by the alleged victim. She did not seek out members of the fraternity involved in the alleged crime. She never questioned her source, or her own methodology as a researcher.

            This week, after a Columbia Journalism Review panel issued a scathing report on Rolling Stone's investigative protocol, the magazine admitted that they'd gotten it wrong, and retracted the story. The UVa. fraternity that the magazine had maligned in the story has vowed to sue the magazine, which will have difficulty in ever regaining our trust, as a source of fact, finding or truth.

            Action research is much more than a valuable methodology for writing a graduate thesis, but if is only confined to the academic setting, the opportunity for the "popular media" to regain long-lost trust is being squandered.

            Whether we're writing for our academic peers or for commuters browsing the bookstore in Grand Central Station for something to read before they board their train, we have an obligation to question, to be skeptical at every step of the way, and to eventually come up with findings that are meaningful and supported.

           That's not only the educator's mandate but that of anyone in this information-sharing age who presumes to publish. And when we do so, as I've now discovered, the certainty of knowing that our work is sound is the highest reward we can receive.

            Of course, as action-researchers, we know that the reward is only fleeting, because our findings are now to be re-examined again -- which happily means that, as we begin the next the cycle of research, there are other moments of proud satisfaction yet to come.