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David Ashforth: Research - using different means for different ends.

Byline: David Ashforth

Panorama's `The Corruption of Racing' provided an interesting insight into tabloid television research, which employs very different methods from those used by serious researchers.

Although the methodology would be frowned on by academic researchers and means that, in their terms, the programme's conclusions have little validity, that doesn't necessarily mean they have no merit, and it certainly doesn't mean they have no impact. The Jockey Club's director of security has already resigned.

A similar piece of academic research would have greater validity but less impact. Its outcome, probably a written report, would be lucky to attract 400 readers, let alone four million viewers.

The starting point

Tabloid television and serious research might have the same starting point for their investigation - the Brian Wright case and the issues it raises about corruption and integrity in racing. After that, their paths would part.

1. Audience

Both camps want to satisfy their audiences but their audiences are very different. They want different things, and pleasing them demands different approaches.

Tabloid Television: Television viewers, television insiders

Serious Research: Client - perhaps a government department, others working in the same field

2. Aims

Tabloid Television: To engage viewers, avoid legal action, make a `splash', achieve high ratings

Serious Research: To produce valid, useful conclusions, with practical recommendations

3. Conclusions

Tabloid Television: Largely pre-determined. Strong assumptions, e.g. corruption is widespread

Serious Research: Emerge from the evidence

4. Methods - sources

In both camps, sources are selected carefully, for a purpose. Since the purposes are different, so are the sources.

Tabloid Television: Limited sources. Favour outspoken advocates of chosen line of argument, e.g. Roger Buffham, Dermot Browne. Very limited use of quantitative evidence

Serious Research: More extensive sources. A mixture of quantitative and qualitative sources, selected to be representative and to provide an objective, balanced picture of the nature and extent of corruption; the integrity systems used to deal with it and their effectiveness

5. Methods - the use of sources

Not only are the sources different, but they are examined in a different way.

a) Questioning the value of sources, e.g. Buffham and Browne

Tabloid Television: Barely questioned

Serious Research: Questioned. Neither Buffham nor Browne would be rejected as sources of information but both would be regarded as sources whose testimony could carry only limited weight

b) Interviewing

Tabloid Television:

i) Methods vary considerably according to the interviewee - whether friendly or hostile to the programme's line of argument

ii) Practices such as covert taping, `door-stepping'

those who have either declined to be interviewed

or agreed only if the interview is live, moving away from

an agreed line of questioning, all regarded as acceptable

Serious Research:

i) Interviews conducted according to a standard procedure.

ii) Such practices regarded as unacceptable

c) The questions

Tabloid Television:

i) As an illustration, contrast the persistent, combative questioning of Christopher Foster with the questioning of Buffham. When Buffham made a highly contentious allegation - "A whole generation of National Hunt jockeys had close links with organised crime" - the assertion went unchallenged. The next question was, "Why should we be concerned about that?" ii) No questions asked to place corrupt episodes or individuals in perspective

Serious Research:

i) Buffham's allegation would be subjected to close scrutiny. The first question would not be whether we should be concerned about it, but whether it was true. Figures and evidence would be required.

ii) Other questions would be asked about quantitative sources, to establish how widespread corruption was. How many races were `fixed'?

How many jockeys were corrupt? What proportion of races and jockeys?

d) Integrity systems

Tabloid Television: No systematic consideration of the integrity system, nor of its reform

Serious Research: Detailed consideration of integrity system, of changes to it, of its effectiveness

6. Presentation

Tabloid Television: Enormous attention paid to presentation, with the use of sophisticated techniques designed to maximise impact on viewers. For instance, Panorama's opening sequence, with Jimmy FitzGerald knocking a letter out of an interviewer's hand; Kieren Fallon giving a malevolent look; a statement describing racing as "a sport which turns a blind eye when its champion jockey mixes with gangsters".

The weight given to material strongly influenced by visual impact, e.g. the Jeremy Phipps episode. Use of awful music

Serious Research:

Considerable, but less attention paid to presentation, which centres on a written report. The weight given to material determined by its assessed significance. No awful music.

7. Impact

Tabloid Television: Can be considerable. Research methods can unearth material not accessible to academic researchers.

Big audience

Serious Research:

Variable. Can be influential but research may have been commissioned by a body seeking support for a

pre-determined policy. Small audience
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Oct 12, 2002
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