Stunt reporting is a lot of fun, but the real struggles of low-wage workers can’t be captured in a day’s work.
Dishwasher Esteban Soc at work in the kitchen of Mexican restaurant Caracol in Houston, Texas. Photo by Scott Dalton/The Washington Post/Getty Images
There is a popular genre of journalism I call “costume journalism.” Instead of pursuing a story mainly through the traditional forms of reporting — research and interviews — a reporter might instead put on the “costume” of the people they’re reporting on for a day to report on what the experience is like. Last year, for example, Daily Beast writer Nico Hines, a straight white man, made a Grindr account and wrote about his experience swiping in the Olympic Village in Rio, effectively outing straight-identifying Olympians to a global audience. In a piece for Fox News, writer Amber Lowry wore the headscarf for a day to see what it was like to be a Muslim woman.
The latest contribution to this category of writing comes from Tim Sietsema, The Washington Post’s food critic. Sietsema wanted to understand why dishwashers were being increasingly celebrated by the nation’s top chefs — but instead of conducting rigorous interviews with the dishwashers themselves, Sietsema decided to try it out himself, for one shift, in a piece being praised by many of his colleagues in media.
Sietsima starts off by introducing us to his “minders,” Esteban Soc and Joselino Aguilar, both from Guatemala:
“[They] are wearing black trash bags, with holes torn out for their heads, over their black shirts. For their efforts here, the dishwashers earn $10 an hour, an invitation to join the staff for family meal, health insurance and a week’s paid vacation after a year of service. The presence of an interpreter (to help with my interviews) reminds me how lonely their job must sometimes be.”
Unfortunately, we can only take Sietsema’s word for it. Quotes from his discussions with Soc and Aguilar comprise exactly seven words of the entire article (“You’re hired!” “I’m just tired.” “It’s easy.”). Meanwhile, quotes from chefs like Anthony Bourdain (host of CNN’s Parts Unknown), Hugo Ortega (Caracol), Emeril Lagasse and Thomas Keller (of the famed French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley) (among others) amount to 313 words. The rest of the article is dedicated to Sietsema’s own experience, in which his grievances mostly have to do with getting sprayed with “detritus.” He compares this laborious work to the famous episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel go to work at a chocolate factory and have trouble keeping up with the conveyor belt of chocolates — a take that’s easy to have when you’re clocking out for good in just a few hours.
Minnesota native and Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema. Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call.
Additionally, the chefs’ accounts of dishwashing relate favorable experiences — Bourdain says he learned every “important lesson” of his life while dishwashing. Michael Schlow, a Boston chef who owns six restaurants, says it “hard, sweaty work” but he “loved it.”
These are mostly white, affluent chefs talking about a profession that, as Sietsema notes, pays minimum wage and is overpopulated by nonwhite workers who often don’t speak English. While many chefs do start as dishwashers, most dishwashers do not become chefs — the positions aren’t as numerous and learning to cook takes time and energy that many low-wage workers do not have.
The real problem with Sietsema’s piece has to do with the limits of costume journalism itself. Nobody, no matter how well-intentioned, can parachute into someone’s life for one day or for one shift and know what the intricacies of their lived experience is really like. A purposely constrained point of view can be fun with a book like “Cork Dork,” in which tech writer Bianca Bosker abandons her life as a media elite to spend a year trying to make it in another relatively cushy gig, as a sommelier. It helps that she frequently admits she doesn’t know it all and never will (though she, too, has her critics).
But there is an uneven power dynamic inherent in Sietsema’s exchange: He’s a white, affluent food critic who knows, at the end of the day, that he will go back to an office, where he holds a job that furnishes him with a quality of life most dishwashers will never, ever experience. The real struggles of low-wage workers are not in what it’s like to do a day’s work, but in the cumulative indignities of that work as a way of life, accruing over years and years — from the strain on their mental health to long-term financial strife.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Either Sietsema or his audience cannot be asked to trust the dishwashers’ own words, as if we need his experience to fact check theirs.[/quote]
In addition to being imprecise (if not inaccurate), this kind of journalism invalidates the voices of the workers themselves. Surely, Sietsema could have gleaned a better understanding of what their work and their lives were actually like by listening to them. Their testimonies should be more than enough, worthy of being incorporated into a rich, reported article. But the final write-up suggests that either Sietsema or his audience cannot be asked to trust the dishwashers’ own words, as if we need his experience to fact check theirs.
But putting on an apron — or a hijab — for a day isn’t reporting. It’s play-acting. Rather than suggesting, as the story’s subhead would have us believe, that “one shift is all it takes” to understand the joys and indignities of professional dishwashing, Siestema could have used his time in the gig as a launching point to more empathetically engage with those in the field. To do more interviews — and to do them well.