Real Research in a Fake News World

Categories: Mixed, Qualitative, Quantitative, Research

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When I first started to write about interview methods, writers in the qualitative field were discussing the emergence of what they called the interview society (Atkinson and Silverman, 1997). Interviews were being used pervasively for business purposes, marketing, political and opinion polling, journalism and entertainment. There was a real concern about the need to overcome potential participants’ reluctance to contribute, and to help them understand the unique characteristics of in-depth interviews conducted for a research purpose. I wrote:

The ubiquity of the casual interview in contemporary media culture places a responsibility on the researcher, who must be able to distinguish for participants how scholarly interviews differ from others in their experience. Unlike other contemporary interviewers, the researcher must work within ethical bounds, and produce writings that undergo the review of institutional, disciplinary, or professional ethics authorities. The scholarly researcher must be able to justify and defend methods, data, analysis, and conclusions generated by the study.

The researcher’s purpose, to generate reliable knowledge, is somewhat different from the purpose for other types of interviews. For example, in a hiring interview, the purpose is clear to both parties, and the interviewer aims to draw out responses to specific questions—usually the same questions posed to other applicants. Journalistic interviews are typically conducted to elicit opinions or feelings, and is not surprising when they disregard privacy of the interviewee. Casual interviewers may not see the need to objectively screen for less than truthful, or unrepresentative, views. Indeed, an extreme view may be the one given air time on a television program or in print, because it is more likely to stir controversy and attract more viewers or readers. (Salmons, 2015, pp. 18-19)

In a few short years, the landscape has changed. Now, we might say we live in an interview and survey society. It seems that with every retail purchase we are asked to complete some kind of questionnaire about how we liked buying groceries or ordering socks online. At the same time that we are being asked to continually share customer experiences, we can’t avoid stories about data breaches and hacking. We hear about fake accounts on social networking sites which raise suspicions about whether our online interactions are actually with the person with whom we think we are communicating, or whether we are chatting with a bot or a spy. It is hard to be candid about voluntarily revealing information about ourselves when we can’t trust that even governments and businesses with large budgets for cyber security cannot keep their data safe.

In this social context, researchers need to cut through the distractions and dig below the surface to understand the lived experience. As scholarly researchers within an interview and survey society we must make an effort to build trust and credibility with individuals who rightly suspect that anyone who wants to learn about their views has ulterior motives or disrespects their privacy. This is true whether you are a qualitative researcher


who wants to conduct interviews or observations, or whether you are a quantitative researcher who wants participants to honestly respond to survey questions and complete the entire instrument. Most researchers in an academic environment must fulfill requirements for informed consent, typically using a legalistic form. While consent is essential for studies with human participants, a signature on a form does not indicate that the participant trusts the researcher.

Here are a few suggestions; feel free to add your own in the comment area.

  • Anticipate potential participants questions, such as: who wants my information, why? How will this information be used? Who will have access to it? Be as transparent as possible. Develop clear and succinct responses and make them readily accessible. Describe in clear terms the purpose of the study and the potential impact it can make to improve others’ lives. Explain how your findings will be disseminated.You could create a written FAQ, and/or recorded audio or video versions. Avoid jargon, and academese. Depending on the type of study, include an introduction that explains your academic credentials, affiliation, and oversight for the study. Ask for feedback about your research materials, preferably someone who shares the demographic characteristics of your target audience.
  • Identify who or what people in your target demographic trust. Once you have crafted your statement or media, you can ask to have it posted on sites associated with respected professional societies, or other organizations that can add to your credibility. Alternatively, post study information on your own site, blog or social media page. As the study proceeds, you can use these channels to share news with participants and other interested parties. Keeping in mind that potential participants are unlikely to track you down and read lengthy statements, summarize key points that you can post on social media.
  • Create a credible online presence. In addition to introducing the study, introduce yourself as a researcher. If someone is considering participation in your study, you can be sure they are going to enter your name into a search engine in an effort to find out more about you. Make sure that when they do so they’ll find what they need to verify that you are who you say you are.
  • Protect the data– and make sure participants know you will keep it safe. Whether you are collecting data online or face-to-face, make sure you avoid having participants’ personally-identifiable information on low-security cloud sites that could be readily hacked.
  • Allow enough time for the human connection. If you will be interacting directly with participants to collect data, include steps and activities to develop rapport. Make sure that any concerns have been addressed before you begin whatever steps you will take to collect data. Interviewing, in particular, should be seen as a multistage process, not a single interaction. Depending on the degree of sensitivity in your study, you might want to communicate more informally prior to a formal interview.

In the midst of fake news, online imposters and superficial questionnaires, researchers now see our important role as public educators. Let’s use interactions with potential or current participants to build awareness of the value that can be derived from disciplined empirical research.


Atkinson, P, Silverman, D (1997) Kundera’s Immortality: the interview society and the invention of the self. Qualitative Inquiry 3(3): 304–325. Google ScholarLink

Salmons, J. (2015). Qualitative online interviews. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.


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