The best toolbox

POSTED: 03/3/14 2:30 PM

Anthropologist-author-journalist Joris Luyendijk will be one of the headliners of this year’s Dataharvest+ conference that wil be held in London in May. Luyendijk worked as a Middle-East correspondent for a number of years before moving to London to run a banking blog for The Guardian that was also published in Dutch in NRC Handelsblad.Rafael Jotea examinded the value of the combination of journalism and anthropology for the European Journalism Fund. An eyeopener.

Your banking blog is doing well. Did you expect it to become so successful?

I hoped it would. I thought, “the importance of the financial sector is huge, so it has to be possible in some way to arouse interest in it.”

What are the advantages of working with a blog versus e.g. a book, series of articles or column?

You can link back to previous pieces, so you don’t have to start from scratch every time around. Also, in the comments thread, the interviewee can redo his answers in a ‘light’ version, in interaction with the readers. And finally, information on the Internet has a different status. On the Internet, people accept a journalist or author saying, “I don’t know yet, help me!”

You have two Twitter accounts.

One’s in Dutch, the other in English. Simple as that.

Someone you interviewed in 2012, a banking equity analyst, claimed that “[his] job is a lot like being a journalist, only better”, because the few thousand people who get sent his work actually read it with care. How important should the reader be for a journalist? Should a journalist ever sacrifice content that he produces to do the reader a favour?

Not for the reader’s amusement, I don’t think. But to make the story more accessible for the reader: yes, in that case sacrificing content would be something to consider. That’s what that banking equity analyst missed: he compares me to a corporate journalist, in whose trade subscribers and subjects coincide. I think it is a journalist’s duty to break open complex topics and fields and make them accessible for the broad public. Social media, for example, will never be able to do that; breaking news is the thing that they’re winning at, not complex news.

You are an educated anthropologist and that shows in many of your journalism stories. In how far is the anthropological perspective in your work a conscious choice?

I just think it’s the best toolbox. Anthropologists do in the long run what journalists do in the short: looking at and documenting society. Thanks to the Internet, those two things can now converge.

What is the added value of an anthropological approach when doing journalism. And, more generally, what is the added value of the use of academic methods in journalism.

Firstly, there is the fact that you are self-reflexive. That means that at some point someone helped you shatter the illusion of you being a fly on the wall. There’s no such thing as a fly on the wall: your description of reality has itself an influence on that reality, and people involved are aware of that. Secondly, you learn to use incidents to describe deeper-lying mechanisms. You look at what happens every day instead of what happened today, i.e. the news. Finally, you learn to look closely at power; at which frames serve which power structures. And you learn to accept that people are often not one hundred percent aware of the frames that drive their thinking.

Do you see a shift to a more academic approach in journalism?


While going through your website, I noticed an interesting statement about dictatorships. “Dictatorships are so fundamentally different from democracies that you cannot describe and report them accurately if you use only the tools of journalism developed in the West.” Can you explain?

Democracies are organized around transparency, the separation of powers and the rule of law. People are not afraid to voice their opinions and give their names, they can organize themselves politically, and there are reliable statistics to document all that. So in the West you can take the demand that information has to be verifiable a lot further. That is a completely different situation than that in dictatorships. Dictatorships deliberately try to keep information extremely foggy. People don’t have the same rights as in democracies, and barely anything of any importance is verifiable or even available. That means that reporters in dictatorships who only report on things that have been fully verified, are left with nothing but environmental disasters and Arab summits, because those are the only things on which there is reliable information.

Do you have some experience with data journalism?

I don’t. I’m more comfortable looking at qualities rather than quantities.

Do you sometimes get criticized for your blog being too activist?

Not for my blog, but sometimes for the columns I write for Flemish daily De Standaard. On the contrary, the interviews on my blog are mostly appreciated, because I don’t push a certain position or opinion.

Is every good journalist an activist?

Well, neutrality doesn’t exist. In an unequal world neutrality often comes down to de facto support to the party with the best PR system. I strongly believe in the separation of powers. As a journalist you have to position yourself in such a way that you will always be able to reconsider all your statements at a later point in time. You are there for the reader, not for yourself or what you think would be a better world. Take it from me: those ideas you have about that better world are sufficiently conveyed by your choice of facts, perspective, talking heads and vocabulary.”


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