“Good journalism is a simple matter but difficult to achieve", namely "trying to obtain the best attainable version of the truth." And the best way of doing that? "Being a good listener." And? "Listening to source after source after source". And? Knocking on doors and wearing out shoe leather. And? Not setting out with a preconceived notion of what the story might be. "Our function is not to create a desired political result. It is to illuminate."

So said the legendary journalist and author Carl Bernstein,speaking at the Perugia Journalism festival some ten years ago. Reading these words now, from my perspective as In Brief editor and as a business journalist who focuses primarily on market research (and art, but that’s a different story), they could have applied equally to qualitative researchers.

Take another quotation: “The beauty of qualitative research, in its purest form, is that it is about exploration and discovery. It requires an inquisitive yet sensitive mind that can look at the world from different points of view, trying to understand the underlying reasons that people do things, what motivates them, what problems they have and so on, and then looking for ways to get over those barriers.”

Parallel views

This comes from AQR’s very own Simon Patterson, in a recent blog aimed at persuading NGOs and NFPs to use more qual. And again, this definition points to parallels between both professions. Maybe it’s not so strange that both professions run along parallel lines. As a journalist who’s covered this area for a number of years, I am often struck by the similarities of the work and the nature of the practitioners in both professions. We both tend to be social beasties, to dig below the surface, to have a creative streak and both can be incredibly stubborn.

But what, I wondered, could we learn from one another? For my part, I covet your analysis skills, the ability to go from zero to a fully fledged rationale for behaviour and attitude in what appears to be one foul swoop. Whether you’re right or not is another matter, but it’s fascinating to watch the process.

Journalists are taught the importance of the five ‘w’s as trainees: the who, what, when, where, why, and, of course, the how. But it was AQR’s webinar with Liza Featherstone earlier this year which highlighted some of the commonalities. Epistemology, or how you know what you know, can help journalists understand their own biases, and how that affects their work. It entails going back to those who have been studied with the data that has been acquired, and asking them if they are being represented accurately.

There are two facets of a journalist’s skill, meanwhile, which might cross over to the quallie’s work. One is the ability to scent zeitgeist, to track it in search of a good story, to unearth facts and figures and interview whoever might help build that story. The other is the honing of the empathy gene, the one that gives you sufficient confidence to know that potential interviewees, captains of industry or the man on the street, may say at the start: “I can give you just five minutes” but will still be spilling the beans 45 minutes later, without fail.

The latter fascinates and exasperates me in equal measure: it means strangers will come and tell you their life story on the tube; that you’ll never be alone at a party (even if you’ve attracted the biggest bore in the room) and that the dentist will be asking for a response when he’s got the drill in your mouth.

But there again, is that then and this is now? Both roles have undergone a shift as the work, and the media, environments have evolved. Bernstein was talking about the situation a decade ago. Since then we have seen media fragmentation, the rise of social media, the blurring of the tramlines between qualitative and quantitative research, and the opportunities offered by Big Data, let alone Warm Data. And that’s not to forget the various manifestations of Fake News, and various attempts to ‘nudge’ behaviour.

Changing skills

For the purposes of this article I put out various feelers. I was also interested in the views of someone outside the industry looking in, and so reached out to MR recruitment specialist Liz Norman. Her view is that “the qualitative skills question is an interesting one as the skills needed now have changed. In the past I would have said listening, big picture, storytelling skills were all important. Now qualitative research involves pulling together information from a much wider range. It is increasingly important, therefore, that qualitative researchers have both right and left brain skills.”

The same is true of journalism, but I don’t feel that means a lessening of the need for people skills, more a sharpening of our ability to unpick the hidden truths in data, and weave them into a story with which readers (or in the case of researchers: clients) can identify. The two professions continue to run on parallel tramlines, while adapting to the world we live in.

In the wake of ESOMAR’s recent Fusion Conference, which attempted to combine qualitative research and Big Data in one forum, let me leave the final definition of qual to Jeroen Verheggen, CEO Netfluential. “For me it is still the ‘what and why’ of research,” he says. “The thing that I find has changed is that we can now quantify the qualitative and the lines between the two have faded. This means we can do good qual work in larger numbers and analyse at scale, making the findings more robust. Or another way of looking at it is that I believe qual research will survive, while quant research is already starting to be replaced by analytics and Big Data.”