In the late 1800s, the United States were transforming themselves into an industrial society. Millions moved to the cities to work in the new factories, where conditions were unimaginably wretched.
Sociologists, reformers, and people concerned with social injustice started examining living and working conditions and writing about them. Many made an impact, especially Upton Sinclair, the only child of an alcoholic liquor salesman and a puritanical mother.
Sinclair was an ethnographer.
In 1904, he took a job at a slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant in Chicago. His seven weeks in the abattoir became the most powerful chapter in his book, The Jungle.
Henry Ford is widely credited with inventing the assembly line in 1913.
What he really did was copy the efficiency of meatpackers’ assembly lines that moved animal carcasses through 80 different procedures without stopping.
Sinclair said the slaughterhouse was more accurately a disassembly line that included jobs with such names as leg breakers, rippers, and gut shovelers.
All day long, meat fell onto floors filthy with dirt, sweat, and spit.
All day long meat was thrown back onto the line as if nothing was wrong. Nothing was wasted, not even meat from diseased and dead animals. Factories bragged they used everything but the squeal. Nothing mattered except saving money and time by keeping the line moving.
The book became an international best seller.
An outraged public called for the reform of the meatpacking industry and president Theodore Roosevelt responded by appointing a special commission to investigate.
The group’s report confirmed the horrors Sinclair had written about and added new ones, including the day they saw a slaughtered hog fall into a worker toilet. As they looked on in horror, men pulled the carcass out of the human waste and skewered it, dripping, back onto its hook.
New federal food laws were enacted and an incensed meatpacking industry branded Sinclair a low-down, dirty muckraker.
Not everyone agreed with the meatpackers. To many, muckraking meant detailed journalistic accounts of wrongdoing written to arouse public interest.
We don’t hear the word anymore, but the concept carries on with watchdogs, whistleblowers, and investigative journalists.
The role of investigative journalism is to examine wrongdoing in great detail by shining a bright light on an issue, presenting evidence, and advocating change. It is foundational that the reporting be fact-based.
Two famous examples are Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose writing about the Watergate scandal led a United States president to resign in disgrace.
My favorite investigative journalist was David Halberstam.
His first person accounts of what was really happening in Vietnam were excoriated by the government and the military as vicious lies.
George Packer’s obituary of Halberstam said the notion of a mere newspaper reporter challenging generals and politicians “was so improbable that it could have occurred only to someone still in his twenties.”
Halberstam was awarded the Pulitzer Prize when it was finally learned he had been telling the truth all along. As it turned out, the government and the military were the liars.
<An important caveat: I get scrappy about this, having served on active duty in Vietnam in 1969 and a year later having an amazing conversation with Halberstam about that quagmire over dinner and bourbon in Lexington, Kentucky.>
For more than 30 years I worked inside hundreds of metaphorical sausage factories.
Even at the very highest levels I encountered the same issues and problems over and over again as a participant observer. My firsthand experiences ultimately led to articles I wrote about what’s wrong with most consumer and market research.
Like the sausage of 100 years ago, research ingredients and processes are unregulated and hidden from buyers’ eyes.
Many research vendors do things that they’d rather you didn’t know about, and most of them get away with it because buyers are unaware of the inner workings.
Please don’t think I am crusading for industry-wide regulation.
What I am advocating is that people who buy research can protect themselves by learning some basic self-defense techniques. My goals are to:
- Raise decision-makers’ consciousness of the problems with research.
- Point them in the right direction.
- Get them asking the right questions.
Don’t just take my word for it.
Do some investigating on your own. Poke around. Ask questions. Seek expert opinions. Regular readers know I’ve long held how important it is to gather opposing points of view and make up your own mind.
Yes, I have what southerners like to call a dog in the fight.
This colloquialism is their colorful way of saying I care about the outcome. Of course I do. I’m a specialist-for-hire who shows you how to defend yourself. Like the advocates hired by patients to help them maneuver through the complexities of the healthcare system, I help you navigate the tricky world of misinformation’s manipulations, distortions, and fabrications.
Like the auditor who examines your books, I determine the accuracy of the information delivered to your desk.
There are a number of consultants offering similar services, and some are quite good at it. As far as I know, though, I’m the only one who reports the extent to which your research exceeds the quality of 100 year old sausage – or doesn’t.
Can anyone actually imagine the corners cut by research vendors come with no compromises at all in the quality of the outcome?