Monday, October 19, 2009

Deep Research: The Process

Deep Research, n. a systematic exploration of behavior that employs intense field work, meticulous evidence-gathering, and knowledgeable interpretation.

Deep research assumes many forms.

In journalism, as in detective work, a case always begins with a question. If an investigator’s worth his salt, the question he asks is the right one, even if the question his editor or client presents him with is not.

Our major deep research project this summer and early autumn called on both journalistic and detecting skills. The question we asked, and planned to answer for the nationally syndicated public radio show, Marketplace, was this:

Does an economic recession cause an upsurge in crime?

We at [FIND] began our quest for answers in mid-July, by combing national news sources on the subject. No easy answer emerged from the scores of contradictory articles, as you’ll see from just a few examples:

New York Times article: “Keeping Wary Eye on Crime as Economy Sinks”

LA Times editorial: “Crime and Economy Don’t Tell Whole Story”

It quickly became clear that we needed to winnow the question down a bit. A phone call to our cop buddy (who wishes to be called “Officer X”) and a couple of reconnaissance cruises along his beat—the seedier stretches of Gallatin Road near downtown—began to carve our thinking into a sharper instrument .

“Officer X” said several things that caught our attention:

“The average laid-off person…tight on cash—they are contributors to society. They’re not gonna lose a job and then go out stealing cars and selling dope…But they might write more bad checks, sell some prescription drugs, or maybe shoplift." -Officer X

Shoplifting, we thought. The ultimate opportunity crime. Wouldn’t that kind of crime, the afterthought of someone newly desperate and trying to provide for his family, be the first category affected by higher unemployment, especially in a neighborhood that’s always existed near the edge? A few initial conversations with beleaguered store owners seemed to confirm this suspicion. (One national drugstore chain manager said off the record she'd seen baby formula and diapers marching off the shelves via the five-fingered discount like never before.) Our curiosity was now officially piqued.

So the new question became:

Has the current economic downturn caused an upsurge in petty thievery and shoplifting in Nashville?

We thought so. And we discovered that, most likely, it does. But not for the reasons we thought.

To find out what we discovered, you’ll have to listen to our Marketplace piece on the subject.

*The story posts this evening, whenever Marketplace airs in your city. We'll post a link after the fact.

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