Ethnography, journalism, filmmaking, and screenwriting

I am pleased to have access to the Toronto Public Library.

I am pleased as well that I have access to Twitter and other online resources, and to CBC Metro Morning and The Current on my laptop and car radio.

I feel pleased as well, that years ago before laptops and personal computers were available, I gained experience as a freelance writer. I owned a portable Olympia typewriter. Sometimes I used scissors and Scotch tape to organize my articles.

How to write a sentence

A magazine editor named Natalie Edwards sat down with me at the Toronto offices of Cinema Canada in the mid 1970s and proceeded to tear apart a manuscript that I had prepared for the magazine. She showed me how to say in a sentence what I had said in three pages. From time to time, I have had occasion to relearn the lesson.

Re-writing takes practice

A few years later, working on a text for a newspaper article, I had the experience of taking a vast amount of text and condensing it to fit within a specified word count. I recall at the time how hard the work was. Once I had learned to get the job done once, to get an article into shape, it was easier the next time. However, even now the process of condensing a text takes for me a tremendous amount of work and effort.

Ethnography offers the opportunity to practise journalism

If I were offering advice to a young person interested in a career in journalism, I would advise them to explore the concept that many fields offer a person the opportunity to do what a journalist does.

Among those fields are ethnography and the practice of law.

Some of the best journalism I’ve come across has been based upon ethnographic field research or has been published as widely-read legal reports by lawyers or judges who conduct inquiries, or render judgements, about a wide range of contentious issues.

A writer connects with an audience, any audience

A journalist requires a job or contract, and an audience. Print and online newspapers and magazines currently don’t offer many opportunities. For that reason, if you want to get paid to write, get a job as an anthropologist. Or a lawyer. There are many great jobs around where you get paid to write, and what you write sometimes makes a difference in people’s lives.

What is the distinction between an anthropologist and an ethnographer? What is the difference between ethnographic field research and the research that a journalist conducts? The differences are minor.

First, find out who pays you for your work, if you seek to get paid for your writing

In order to make a living as a journalist posing as an anthropologist, you have to know who the person is who can get you published.  That person is sometimes known as a publisher. In academic work, the person may not have the title of publisher but it’s not hard to figure out who that person is.

Producers, publishers, and curators are all terms for the same function. A good introduction to this topic can be found at my previous posts concerned with the production of independent films, such as:

Sherry B. Ortner adopts a neoliberal framework to address the role of producers in independent filmmaking

If you want to know what to write, know your audience

As an anthropologist, you want to figure out who your audience is and what they are interested in. In other words, figure out the history of the discipline. If you need some help, a good resource is a chapter by Sherry B. Ortner in a book called Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory (1994).

The chapter is entitled: “Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties.” A key quotation (p. 382) reads:

“The anthropology of the 1970s was much more obviously and transparently tied to real-world events than that of the preceding period. Starting in the late 1960s, in both the United States and France (less so in England), radical social movements emerged on a vast scale. First came the counterculture, then the antiwar movement, and then, just a bit later, the women’s movement: these movements not only affected the academic world, they originated in good part within it. Everything that was part of the existing order was ques­tioned and criticized.”

[End of quotation]

Was that written by an academic or a journalist? What’s the difference? Does it matter?

If you want to make great films, seek employment as a linguistic anthropologist

I have tremendous admiration for the film work of linguistic anthropologist Marjorie Harness Goodwin. The link in the previous sentence explains why.

I have never actually seen her films, but I’ve read her transcripts and they are awesome. They bring her movies to life. You don’t need to see the videos because you can read the detailed scripts.

If you want to excel as a screenwriter, get a job as a linguistic anthropologist

In the previously noted link, I describe the great scripts that Marjorie Harness Goodwin has created.

Among the scripts, or more precisely, transcripts, that she has created are descriptions about how bullying in school-based cliques, the subject of Goodwin’s linguistic anthropological research, actually occurs. Such a script gives a person a much better sense of what bullying, intimidation, and harassment entails than some general description based upon interviews and surveys.

A recent podcast at CBC The Current provides information about technical advances applicable to ethnographic research

In the link that I’ve noted earlier, I speak about how GoPro equipment can be used in future refinements of groundbreaking linguistic anthropology research.

This topic is treated at much greater length, and in a much more interesting way than anything that you have read in this blog post, at a Nov. 18, 2014 CBC The Current podcast entitled: Journalism project uses virtual reality to recreate Syrian conflict.

This is a great podcast. I recommend it highly.

Updates: Andy Warhol, sociologist

A Dec. 1, 2014 Slate article is entitled: “White House Will Fund Police Body Cameras, Review ‘Police Militarization’ Process.”

Update: A Dec. 1, 2014 CBC Radio interview, about Andy Warhol and Ronald Reagan, positions Andy Warhol as an innovative sociologist (focusing on fame among other topics of interest), along with his roles as groundbreaking painter and photographer.

A Feb. 22, 2013 Phaidon article is entitled: “The fascinating story behind Andy Warhol’s soup cans.” The article notes:

  • With his Campbell’s Soup Cans installation at Ferus Gallery, the artist realised the possibility of creating works in series, and the visual effect of serial imagery. He continued making variations on his Soup Cans, stencilling multiple cans within a single canvas and so amplifying the effect of products stacked in a grocery store, an idea that he would later develop in the box sculptures. He also realised that the serial repetition of an image drained it of its meaning, an interesting phenomenon most poignantly presented in his Disasters, in which the constant exposure to their graphic displays of violence numbs the senses. And, perhaps the most significant outcome of this series was the artist’s push towards printing to achieve the mechanical appearance that he sought in his paintings.

[End of excerpt]

Do It Yourself (Seascape), 1962. Artist: Andy Warhol. Photograph: 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

The first sentence of a January/February 2015 Walrus Editor’s Note reads: “These are troubled times for North American journalism.”

An Oct. 28, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Andy Warhol TIFF show explores artist’s obsession with stars, fame: Highlights include Warhol’s own memorabilia plus his videos, screen prints, photos.”

A Feb. 2, 2016 Ryerson Journalism Review article is entitled: ” ‘The greatest act of journalism ever’: Marie Wilson, of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says journalism is an integral part of indigenous culture and history.”

A Feb. 2, 2016 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “Canada’s media: A crisis that cries out for a public inquiry.”

A Feb. 4, 2016 Toronto Star article is entitled: “From the eye of the hurricane, the ’crisis’ in journalism.”

A Jan. 7, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “The problem with newspapers today: the Marty Baron perspective: ‘Spotlight’s’ Marty Baron may be the last of the old-time Humphrey Bogart editors. Pity.”

A March 11, 2017 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Museums as newsrooms, university profs as journalists: A look at how museums could be a source of trusted civic information, as well as the roles of universities and ordinary people as newsrooms shrink.”

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