Inside journalist and researchers collaboration: a summary of the PLACES project

The following is the translation from French of the Executive Summary of the PLACES project report, pp. III-V.

The PLACES project aimed to explore the conditions for the development of a “Collaborative Platform for Societal Issues” (whose acronym is PLACES in French) in order to propose a response to the limitations of publicizing science today. Its ambition was to test the hypothesis that the relationship between journalism and research is a major axis of development and innovation for journalistic practice, in the context of the massive disinformation phenomenon that democratic societies are experiencing today. Indeed, journalists and researchers tend to play two distinct and successive roles, which leads to a compartmentalization of professional practices that constitutes an obstacle to a good understanding of societal issues.

In order to experiment with a renewed collaboration between researchers and journalists, the PLACES project wanted to make them co-actors in the process, inviting them to take part in a citizen science approach. In order to bring out a participatory dimension in the production of knowledge, an “integrated” collaboration was proposed, in which journalists and researchers would be equally involved in the choice of the social issues on which they were going to work as well as in the definition of the methods and means of collecting the data implemented.

The PLACES project focused on the social sciences and the humanities (SSH), as there is a tendency in the press not to treat research on these topics as scientific subjects, but rather as information dedicated to the Society, Culture or Environment columns. The intention here is to extend the competence to recognize, understand and if necessary implement research methods in SSH, to arm journalistic practices with finer and more consolidated tools to explore, analyze and understand the societal issues that weave our lives. This means, on the one hand, to make it visible the long-standing commitment of SSH researchers for the articulation of science and society, and thus defending their expertise in this area. On the other hand, there is a challenge to improve the capacity of these researchers to translate their results and to make their methods explicit. The PLACES project wished to explore the idea that the impact of a “subject” on the general public would be strengthened when journalists and researchers manage to investigate together and then collaborate until the final journalistic product is produced and reported, thus influencing the quality of democratic debate.

The PLACES project commissioned three experimental inquiries in pairs (called pilot projects), consisting of a researcher in social sciences and humanities and a journalist, each associated with a media outlet, to investigate a social issue of their choice: the municipal election campaign (CafeBabel), voluntary amenorrhea (20 Minutes) and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (Binge Audio). The pairs were given complete autonomy to define their research topic and methodology, the only constraint being that they had to produce at least one common corpus of data. A fourth inquiry was financed in parallel (called a meta-project) with the aim of studying the collaborations undertaken within the three pilot projects over time. The work of these projects was regularly published in the project’s research blog, in an effort to open up the process of the research in progress. The mission of the meta-project was to synthesize and problematize the observations made and finally to present proposals for the creation of a digital work platform designed to support this type of collaboration.

The pilot projects and the meta-project shared three assumptions, “parti pris” which, common to both the journalists and the researchers, formed the basis of the collaborations undertaken. The first is to give primacy to fieldwork in the understanding of social realities and, by extension, to the empirical approach and inductive reasoning. The second concerns the interest in micro-sociological analysis, that is, the privileged attention to the facts that constitute the most ordinary fabric of social life. The third assumption relates to the conviction that all fieldwork aims first and foremost to question the prejudices and categories of thought of everyone, both the investigators and the people they are addressing.

In terms of results, changes in practices were observed in the play of the pairs’ ordinary interactions, to varying degrees, ranging from an awareness of the terms used to describe a social reality to a more radical questioning of the working methods used to conduct the inquiries. The change of perspective is significant, both in terms of the production of knowledge and in terms of its publication, because it concerns the development of a critical discourse on a given social reality. It is particularly at the moment of “problematization”, this process which makes the investigator’s path intelligible, that the differences become most visible, but it is also the moment when the first changes within the practices take place. Another key moment is the sharing of data with a view to a joint analysis: here the difference between the working methods can cause the collaboration to fail. It should be noted, however, that “successful” collaboration does not de-naturalize the professional practices of each individual.

More generally, it appeared that there are many obstacles of various kinds to maintaining effective interprofessional collaboration throughout the duration of common projects. In the three cases observed, these obstacles required each of them to deploy a high degree of intellectual and organizational agility, by constantly making adjustments to their respective professional practices. These are of three types. The first adjustments are called “paradigmatic”, they concern the modes of reasoning and are themselves declined in three levels of deconstruction of the categories of analysis. The second adjustments are called “epistemic”, they refer to the articulation of types of knowledge on the one hand, between those acquired during personal trajectories and those specific to the fields of specialization, and documentary practices on the other hand, concerning the use of documentary sources specific to each disciplinary and professional field. The third adjustments relate to the inquiry methods that lead the partners to share data collection tools and procedures, and that apply specifically to the two-way interview techniques.

Then, the observation and analysis of interprofessional collaborations between journalists and researchers in the social sciences and humanities have led to the creation of specifications for a digital environment that would facilitate this type of collaboration. This environment, which would include a workspace, would provide partners with tools for shared work, data sharing, access to documentary sources and common sources of funding. Its purpose would not only be to compensate for the lack of physical co-presence, but also to be adapted to interprofessional collaborative projects, which could be useful to partners working at a distance as well as in close proximity to each other. Such a platform should also be an opportunity to create, animate and develop an extended community allowing potential partners to meet, interact and make their project known.

Finally, this study has shown that the “platform” cannot be limited to a digital component: it is also necessary to coordinate the organizational structures of the professional worlds that are destined to cooperate in order to avoid disparities – salary, material, administrative – that are too great between partners, disparities that weigh heavily on the conduct of projects. Finally, awareness-raising, at various levels, of the issues involved in collaborative projects and external support for their implementation are central to reducing as far as possible the uncertainty in which the partners engage, encouraging the recognition and transition to new (inter)professional practices.

The full report (in French) is available in open access:

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