When Dr. Stephanie Tong first approached me to co-author a study based on one of my news stories, I was thrilled. And more than a little daunted. The last "academic" paper I’d ever written was for an undergraduate elective; a research paper on the Roman army in which I lost points for (among other things) crass language and failing to use the correct citation style. I was a creative writing major working towards a career in journalism— the nuances of academic publishing weren’t on my radar at all.
So I wasn’t sure how I could be of use to a group of serious researchers. One of the first things we learn in Journalism School is that we are not the experts. All journalists need to rely on sources outside of their own experience: first-hand accounts, professional assessments, reliable documentation. But I hadn’t used any particularly scientific methods when gathering these for my story, only a maddening paranoia to check and recheck everything. Do I have enough evidence? Did I read every page? Did anyone lie to me? Nothing would stress-test my reporting (or me) more than a dissection by proper academics.
Newsrooms usually hire fact-checkers to go over all of the original reporting in a story, a process that can feel deeply invasive after months of working alone, and I expected to feel a similar level of neuroticism during the scholastic process. But (to my profound relief) Dr. Tong, Dr. Rochadiat, and Dr. Hancock weren’t looking to poke holes in the established facts. They were trying to gather even more information on a subject I feel strongly about. And they were doing it as a team.
If you haven’t read the study (which, of course, you should), the premise is this: There’s a new industry blooming in the online dating world; a gig economy of online dating assistants who will— for a fee— ghostwrite all of your dating accounts, including your profile, photo selection, and flirting. These businesses rely on a certain level of discretion— the matches being flirted with should have no idea they’re speaking to a professional. I had this job for a little while myself, and wrote about the industry in general for Quartz. The study takes an even deeper dive into the actual experience of doing this sort of work. What motivates someone to take on a morally dubious job like this? How does pretending to be multiple different clients every day affect them?
It turns out that the processes for investigating a news story and conducting academic research have quite a few things in common. Gathering sources; anonymizing participants; carefully vetting for coincidental data; summarizing it all in a prose form that readers will enjoy and remember. I didn’t always understand the more technical methodology being used, but I recognized the same instinct that was drilled into me years ago: we are not the experts. Yet. So let’s find the people who are.
And we did find them. I was fascinated by how enthusiastic people were to be part of an official study. As a reporter, I’d run into a lot of problems getting sources to agree to speak with me for the Quartz story, even under the promise of anonymity. I wish I knew for sure why the academic setting put so many of these people at ease— I suspect it has something to do with the flagging reliability of journalism in general. Real or perceived. Nobody wants to risk their career for a journalist they don’t trust.
So it was extremely heartening to see the levels of trust these sources placed in Dr. Tong and Dr. Rochadiat. They discussed highly personal details purely for the sake of research, and some even offered to help us locate other interviewees. It’s not uncommon for me to find enthusiastic news sources, but they’re rarely so invested in the success of my projects.
Watching this team take my story and transform it into a piece of research— that might be cited as an expert source by journalists in the future— has been one of the highlights of my career. I sincerely hope there will be a next time!