Objects of Journalism: Bar Rags and the AIDS Virus

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Editors’ note: Joe Cutbirth (@joecutbirth) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Manhattan College, New York. He writes about politics and the media for the Huffington Post and at his home blog, joecutbirth.com, a blog by a Texas expat adjusting to life as a New Yorker. In this interview for this month’s ‘Ethnographies of Objects’ edition, Joe talks about his fascinating work investigating a particular object of journalism produced in his home state of Texas in the 1980s: the “bar rag”. Here, he talks about the journalism, the AIDS virus and what it means to live through a time in which he now is a scholar. 


EM: How can a deadly virus and a free entertainment guide become objects of journalism?

TWT79_cover

‘This Week in Texas’ cover image. March 17-23, 1979

One of the key lessons in modern media history is that journalism exists in a host of forms and delivery systems that are created and shaped by social, political, economic, and technological forces. Journalism is a term for both a set of social practices and the commodities those practices produce. Neither is static. Journalistic practices and products vary in different times and in different places and when done by different people for different audiences. They are fluid forms of inquiry that produce a fluid set of products that reflect factual events of public interest. Journalism is shaped and supported by objects. Some are innately journalistic; others are not.

Journalistic objects include cameras, tape recorders and other technologies that make it easier for journalists to practice their craft. They also include public records, news releases and other documents that assist in the inquiry that is the heart journalistic practice. So, what about nonjournalistic objects, items that aren’t created to help journalistic practice or to function as a journalistic product?

Nonjournalistic objects, such as the AIDS virus and free entertainment guides known as “bar rags,” are easy to overlook because they exist outside the routines that make up the everyday world of journalism. Yet, that very condition makes them essential to explore. A scholarly examination of the circumstances and processes that bring nonjournalistic objects into the world of journalism opens an important window into both journalistic practice and product.

The AIDS virus isn’t an object that journalists routinely encounter the way they do public records and news releases. A virus isn’t created with journalistic intent. It may, however, have an effect on human beings that causes it to be a subject of curiosity that spawns journalistic inquiry. “Bar rags,” the common name given to This Week in Texas and other free entertainment guides found in gay bars in many American cities during the 1980s, resemble journalistic products in form, but their content was not primarily journalistic. They were designed to carry information about social gatherings and entertainment venues, not news. Left to themselves, the virus and the bar rags would have had an altogether different relationship, if any relationship at all, but external forced changed that.

So, it’s not just the nonjournalistic objects that are important. It’s the circumstances surrounding how they become journalistic in nature – in this case the collision of the two items – that is key. My research began with the question of how systemic journalistic failures brought the two nonjournalistic objects together, continued with a look at the social forces that shaped their interaction, and concluded with a discussion of the implications their unintended relationship had for the survival and emerging identity of millions of Americans.

TWT82_jones_obitEM: What is the best method to approach the study of this relationship?

At its core, ethnography is a process of observation. It traditionally requires a researcher to go where a phenomenon is playing out and to see the situation firsthand over an extended period of time. Ethnographers observe culture from the point of those creating it and living it, not from the point of the participant ethnographer. They record behavior and describe semiotic relationships.

So, is it even possible to use ethnography to research culture and circumstances (such as journalistic responses to the onset of the AIDS crisis) that occurred decades ago? Have library science, media technology and intercultural communication progressed to the point that virtual observation can occur? Are some texts thorough enough – or, in the case of a unique and iconic “bar rag,” do they represent some aspect or moment in a culture so precisely – that they provide essentially the same information a researcher would get through firsthand observation? Or are we talking about an intellectual shuffle that is nothing more than renaming the well-established practices of archival research and case study methodology?

Social ethnographies typically include a brief history of the culture and some analysis of its physical geography, which anthropologists call “habitat.” They identify language, kinship and social structures along with rites, rituals, and evidence of religion, particularly when those actions occur publicly. Some anthropological ethnographies focus on the lesser tangible aspects of culture, such as the values or “ethos “of a society.

Communication scholars are adapting ethnography to their relatively new discipline in other ways, beginning with efforts to observe and analyze communicative behaviors and phenomena. This work often shows how communication practice and performance leads to identity construction. Like anthropologists, communication scholars often immerse themselves in the group they are studying. They may participate on and or directly observe behavior. Sometimes their findings are packaged as ethnography; other times they are presented as fieldwork or as a case study.

My recent research into the role bar rags played during the early days of the AIDS epidemic was neither designed nor promoted as ethnographic work. Yet, my findings offered the same information – history of the culture, social structures, rites, rituals, social values, communicative behaviors and identity construction – as ethnographies typically conducted by sociologists, anthropologists and other communication scholars. My work was based on a firsthand review of one weekly publication for 15 years (750 consecutive issues) and enhanced by in-depth interviews of people prominently discussed on its pages.

But there was something else: I lived through the precise time in the precise place I was exploring now as a scholar. I experienced the culture and its social structure, rites and rituals firsthand. I read virtually every issue of that magazine the week it was published nearly three decades ago. And I drew on my very profound personal experiences with life, death and identity construction to argue the relevance of the study, to develop its methodological framework, and as a barometer for interpretation of how nonjournalistic items evolved  – – all based on my experiences then, not my values today.

There is nothing new at work here. What may be new is how we look at methods like ethnography, archival research, case studies, etc… and the transparency we offer around their interconnectivity. I’m not sure new ways of communication are bringing old ethnographic boundaries up for negotiation. I do know that in this project, I was an after-the-fact participant observer of sorts, an ethnographer before I knew what one was, and I would argue that those insights made my research stronger and its findings more credible.

Editors’ note: When we asked Joe where others might find these iconic publications, he wrote: ‘The research I did was on one iconic bar rag, This Week in Texas. Talk about luck, It was THE major publication of its day, and at first, I was planning to base my research around 15-20 in-depth interviews about it. Then, out of nowhere, I found a complete set of every single edition of it from the initial printing to beyond 1990 at the rare books collection of The University of North Texas. So, I went there for a week. Unfortunately, it is not digital. They only have the original edition of each week still boxed up the old-fashioned way. The images below were scanned for me by the librarian during the time I spent reviewing every one of them.’ So you’ll have to pack up and head out there if you want to look at them… or read some of Joe’s research when it comes out soon (we hope!) 

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Categories: Editions, Ethnographies of objects

Author:Heather Ford

Heather Ford is a researcher, lecturer and writer working on issues relating to digital politics, authority and the travel of facts online.

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