The Press, Misrepresentation, and Misunderstanding

To my readers:  
Yesterday a local Virginia newspaper ran a story in response to a a press release regarding research that I and my colleague, Carol Cleaveland, had conducted in Manassas in 2008 and 2009. We are ethnographers, which means we utilize ethnography as our primary research method.  Ethnography is a research method often used in the social sciences, particularly anthropology, folklore and sociology, but also in a variety of other fields.  The goal of ethnography is to gather data that is in-depth and from a small group of people.  Usually this would be a local community, a neighborhood, or even a small town.  Data collection is done a number of ways: participant observation (where the researcher lives alongside his or her informants and documents day-to-day life and activities), but also interviews and questionnaires.  The purpose of an ethnographic account is to describe those who are studies (i.e., the people or ethnos) and to document this through writing, thus the term, ethnography. 
We began our work in Manassas in the Weems neighborhood and Sumner Lakes in March 2008.  During that period, we interviewed 100 households that were randomly selected.  These households were non-immigrant households. The householder had to be able to speak English fluently to participate.  The summary of that research is highlighted this statement that I made earlier this year:

“Our research suggests that the changes that have taken place in Manassas in the last 20 years have been unsettling for some residents,” says Debra Lattanzi Shutika, assistant professor of English at Mason. “Many of these residents seemed to be experiencing what I have identified as a type of ‘localized displacement’—they feel out of place in their home community. In some cases, residents told us that they found it difficult to adapt to the changes taking place around them, and that these changes that made their ‘home’ seem unfamiliar.”
Throughout this phase of the research, we asked residents about a number of changes in their community. What we found is that Manassas had changed significantly over the last 20 years, and many residents viewed those changes as unsettling.  We also discovered that  a majority of the people we talked to had strong negative feelings about immigrants. We interviewed 103 households and then went back and did an additional 30 in-depth interviews.  These ranged from 1-3 hours in length, depending on the informant.
In the second phase of this study, we went into two predominantly Latino neighborhoods and interviewed a non-random sample of residents. There we interviewed 60 people.  These residents reported feeling alienated from the community, and in some cases, extreme fear.  What I told Ms. Chumley when I spoke to her on Monday was, although it was not surprising that an undocumented person would feel frightened by the law, we were not expecting DOCUMENTED LATINOS, of which there are many in the area, to feel this way.  In fact, the responses of the documented indicated that they were just as likely to fear leaving their homes or sending their children out to play as others.  [Note: for reasons of confidentiality, we did not directly ask people about their documentation status.  However, those who were documented were forthcoming about their residency status.]

When I read Ms. Chumley’s article, I was disappointed with her report because she clearly misrepresented our work.  For instance, both Prof. Cleaveland and I told her that we understood the frustrations of Manassas residents who were distressed with changes in their neighborhoods, such as having neighbors who did not cut their grass, had too many cars parked around their homes, and left trash unattended around their homes and on their laws.  For my part, most of the work that I have done in the last 15 years with immigration has focused equally on American-born residents in new destinations of Mexican migration.  I recently published an essay on this, which is linked here.
In short, I may disagree with some of my informants about their perspectives on immigration, but that is not to say that I don’t think their perspectives should be ignored.  I honestly think that one of the major reasons why immigration has become such a volatile topic is because for too long residents complaints about the changes to their communities and the legitimate problems that come with a rapid increase in an immigrant population have been ignored by their local government. 
And please note: Prof. Cleaveland and I did not have to go into Weems or Sumner Lakes and do interviews.  We could have followed the path of many of our colleagues and only focused on the perspectives of Latinos.  We could also have simply published our work in peer-reviewed journals and no one would have questioned us regarding why we did not talk to American-born residents.  

However, we decided that, in light of the ordinances, the people in these communities deserved to have a say, and we gave them the opportunity to share their perspectives.

Getting back to the article written by Ms Chumley yesterday, there were a number of errors in it, and in places she clearly misrepresented us.  Prof. Cleaveland and I wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper, and to date we have not had a response from the editor or Ms. Chumley.  Below is a excerpt from that letter:

We agreed to an interview with Cynthia Chumley on the assumption that as a reporter, she would adhere to basic principles of fairness.  Reporters are taught early on in journalism programs to offer subjects of an article the chance to respond to allegations–especially those that can harm the reputation of people either professionally or personally.  This reporter has quoted two public officials, including one who made serious allegation about the scientific merits of our research.
This reporter made no effort to allow us the opportunity to respond.
The following are our concerns:
  1. Though we stated repeatedly in our interviews that our work also focused on non-Latino views of the situation in PWC and Manassas, and that we both understood and sympathized many resident’s frustration, she chose to leave these comments out of the article.
  2. This reporter never allowed us the opportunity to respond to allegations that our work is not scientific and our methodology is flawed
  3.  This reporter quotes a public official who does not appear to have the credentials to evaluate scientific research, and gives him a platform for alleging that our work has no merit.
  4. Chumley describes one researcher as a “professional social worker,” which appears to be a deliberate effort to ignore the fact that Cleaveland has a Ph.D. in the field, and is therefore a social scientist.
  5. She also questions the use of ethnographic methodology, a method of inquiry developed at the University of Chicago in the 20th century, and which continues to be practiced and refined by social scientists.
  6. It is apparent from the article that Ms. Chumley’s intention was to created a controversy about our work, specifically by characterizing our research as having a specific agenda–to oppose the PWC ordinances–which we clearly and repeatedly told her in the interview as not the case.
  7. Although we strongly disagree with Ms. Chumley’s methods and characterization of our work, we would like the opportunity to share our research with your readers.  We are willing to write a brief op-ed piece that accurately describes our methods, purpose and findings to set the record straight.
  8. As scholars of immigration, and as advanced scholars in our prospective fields, we both recognize that some readers will disagree with our research and our findings. However, we cannot allow your publications to mischaracterize our work and allow those claims to go unchallenged.

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