Amid a difficult year and no end in sight, why journalism needs a circuit-breaker?

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David Dunkley Gyimah

I'm reading the Power of News by Prof. Michael Schudson. It’s been my go to book for years. Schudson writes with an ease that connects dots hidden in plain sight. It’s starts with a thought experiment to which I’ve slightly added my own insight.

Imagine a world in which governments, businesses, lobbyist, social agencies, deliver information directly to citizens on their mobile/computer. Nobody knew of this thing called Journalism. What would happen, he asks.

We’d rely on what the government says, the council, and the bodies that make up our social institutions. Then there would be various businesses and entrepreneurs telling us why we should buy their goods. This will make you lose five pounds everyday. That track and trace is bound to work and your data will be safe. By closing our borders we can prevent anyone from getting in and safeguard the country’s labour force.

We’d rely on a basic premise that these sources are credible and their credibility can be substantiated and that they have largely everyone’s interests at heart. But what happens when those very institutions begin telling you not what’s good for you, but what’s good for them?

The conversations, if you could have with any of the institutions, may lead to more interaction, but not necessarily mean more meaningful information.

We’re experiencing one at home right now. My teenage son’s flight to the US, to participate in the Hip Hop World Dance competition was cancelled because of Covid. The airline is supposed to refund the money to Rob who saved every penny to make it. Six months on Lastminute.com refuse to refund him. They speak directly to Rob to tell him one excuse after another why they can’t give him his money back, almost $800.

The sandpit where consumers hear directly from corporates is now quicksand.

You now need someone, a friend, neighbour, family member to explain, someone to get to the bottom of what’s going on by asking the right questions. They might have insight, they might require leads to unravel the issue.

That there leads to the invention of journalism. Her/his job is to be the decoder. They sit between the people speaking jargon, obfuscating, avoiding blame or not telling the truth for gain and an audience.

It is by nature a job that requires dextrous literary skills, knowledge and an understanding of social structures within politics, as well as acute interpretive skills. Of the several types of journalists, that include motor racing, fashion, adventure and sports, one has made it her task to decode current information — the news journalist.

Schudson’s book was written in 1995, which means he’s either prescient, given what we’re living through now, or otherwise that the world’s problems to date have always been in motion. We need journalists then? Agreed!

News journalism comes with a caveat. It imagines people are largely decent, governments work to social norms and that social institutions are civil. That expectation of truth is the blanket around society and guides interactions.

The coming of age of journalism is documented by the eminent scholar James Carey in “Where journalism education went wrong”, provides clues to its status quo. Essentially the teaching of journalism in the 1900s in the US is taken on by university literature departments who consider journalism low brow or newspapers passing on knowledge whilst seeking status. It then gets caught up in the new quest for communications in warfare during WWII.

Carey writes about the moment ,“in the late 1940s when scientist realized that a small set of principles, which could be expressed with mathematical exactness, governed the process of communications’…. And that a new science of communications, where journalism would sit within departments was “nothing more than the science of control and coordination of systems”.

In the early 1900s there were relatively few journalists; the people that were generally involved had their own strong ideals and despite as Carey states there has been “a body of intellectual work of continuing importance…that development has not been good for journalism or journalism education”.

Journalism has an identity crisis and it’s about to face a rear guard attack in the mid 20th century, in particular, when several businesses learn Freudian methods to be persuasive, manipulative and use public relations to gain an upper hand.

Psychoanalysis unveils hidden desires within people in which you do things you didn’t even recognise you were doing. By the 1950s advertising mined the subconscious enough to create a multi-billion industry. You needed a car not because of its functionality, but virility. An egg is all what was needed to to add to a cake mixture that gave US housewives the satisfying feeling of being master chefs, and buying something at the last minute meant it was likely to be cheaper, hence lastminute.com

The first two aforementioned examples are captured in the ground breaking book of the 50s The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. It sold more than a million copies and made Vance who was a copywriter, famous. It brought him many enemies too from advertisers for revealing psychological techniques to manipulate you and I into making choices.

Soon politics and politicians desired the same approach to make the electorate fall in line. Therein lay a worrying trend emerging. Politics wasn’t about what was right, but about satisfying those in power whatever their ideology.

Journalism, the art of decoding, sat between the consumer, businesses and now governments, faced with knowledge it needed to understand and resolve.

By now to some extent journalism has begun to accept PR as a bed partner. Its place in humanities is begrudgingly accepted, or otherwise veers to the science of communications and tech.

In the 60s/ 70s the art of critiquing that looked at social structures to understand implicit language resided in literature and film, but journalism wasn’t interested in this gymnastics of the mind, and set about, as illustrated in David Bordwell’s seminal book Making Meaning, going it alone. A new tranche of departments of journalism were born.

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Shaping the mind

Faced with the imposition of looking into the mind, whilst business and government systematically employed it, Journalism side stepped an important systemic acquisition. I usually run a simple experiment each year with my mannequin head proving how to manipulate minds with basic language.

Yet in spite of the rise in manipulation, governments were still largely civil. Officials could still be held to account and understood the consequences. Journalism could make people walk the plank of shame — their own doing — by the power of their pen.

Carey’s elegant synopsis of journalism below sums up its origins:

The natural academic home of journalism is among the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Journalism naturally belongs with political theory which nurtures an understanding of democratic life and institutions; with literature, from it derives a heightened awareness of language and expression and an understanding of narrative form; with philosophy, from which it can clarify its own moral foundations; with art which enriches its capacity to imagine the unity of the visual world; with history which forms the underlying stratum of it consciousness.

All Change

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By the mid 90s to 2000 the net changed an important relationship that hitherto had concealed journalism’s achilles. It’s inherent in Carey’s elegy.

It’s 2004, Dan Gillmor, a tech journalist, writes a book every journalism executive reads and gasps. Wethemedia makes Gillmor a reluctant celebrity carrying a message, “everyone is now a journalist”.

I met and filmed Dan in Miami in 2006, having built a video news magazine — one of the firsts of its kind, which was lauded by the industry. Now Dan was saying I, alongside many others who yearned to have a voice, could do so.

My cheat was that I had already been in mainstream media and in 1994 was one of the first journalists in the UK to become a videojournalist. I no longer needed a reporter, camera operator, sound person, editor, producer, exec producer to help me make a report. I could do it by myself.

A number of things though lurk beneath this shiny tech surface of 2006. Businesses, governments and social institutions were developing a new philosophy and it’s becoming more than obvious that culture and diversity, previously unplaced in journalism, are to play a pivotal role in its growth.

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As an interpretive skill what works in one culture, doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on another. Above is one of several slides I used to unthread why journalism ambivalence remains. The journalism largely observed is a construct of the West that resides in specific cultures, yet may not acknowledge the cultural differences that exists in their own cultures, let alone others.

Then this. New psychological techniques being developed to serve the ends of the sender e.g. business or government. If we (whoever we is) ever needed a new type of journalist it was then and now. Not one wedded to technology, but of a multiple interdisciplinary approach that included a deep understanding of psychology.

Interestingly as the Net took hold, professions such as engineers, doctors, architects who worked online did not refer to themselves as cyber engineers, online doctors, or architectural web loggers. Journalism’s legacy enabled a redefinition technically but without taking in consideration societal changes. The fact that it suited many isn’t the point, otherwise we might all be doctors, engineers or painters. Tis both its achilles and entry point.

The new philosophy from businesses and governments emerging from ingratiating psychology has slowly mature I call “durable circumstances”. A set of ideas that would come to fruition in 2016. One scenario goes like this

  1. You in government are under no obligation or moral compass to tell the truth.
  2. If a journalist writes about you and you’re shamed so what. It’ll last a day or so and then the media will move on.
  3. Broadly speaking journalism doesn’t equip its practitioners with a deep insight into manipulation, so business and governments will tend to have the upper hand. And if you’re caught, go back to point 1.

These are “durable circumstances”. Nothing can unseat you from the task ahead, even if a journalist unearths an official breaking the law. Governing is not about looking after all the people, but the section who got you into office. Thus polarised politics is the new economy.

Journalism, portrayed as Wethemedia appears easy because the model born in the 1900s remains. To be a doctor or engineer requires more than common knowledge, it’s a continuing elevator to search for new ideas, new thoughts, how society and culture impact the discipline you inhabit. For instance, investigations into the use of masks and distancing have led to new common sense knowledge on tackling the corona virus.

Journalism’s achilles is that is seems Wethemedia can drive ourselves because of the deep seated absence of the methods and tools used to combat the language, behaviour and power assumed by social institutions and governments.

To wave a certificate, command an audience, have no truck in blurring the divide between the consumer and businesses is de facto accepted in journalism. It deserves a circuit breaker. Time to take stock. Because the psychological soup is about to become AI normalised.

In its experimentation to become the go-between journalism missed the trick. It perhaps could not be foreseen. Hindsight is a curse. Yet we know the strains journalism is placed under; the catch up it’s playing and that it may not improve. If you keep on doing what you’re doing, you keep on getting what you got, goes the saying.

It’s time it reframed. In my own study of television journalism, I’ve spotted a burgeoning group of journalists who consider culture and psychology, though not outrightly expressed as central to their work.

It is storytelling that has an alternative name that was hived off as fictional in the early 1900s to its factualness. In the 1920s in Russia its version was pushed in the remarkable film by Vertov. In the 60s Robert Drew and friends sensed its importance in non-fictional film. Then in the 90s in the independent scene it emerged as a long tail.

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In his definition of journalism Schudson says the following. It’s a cultural form shaped by literary conventions and social practices over time. In order to understand cultures requires a sociological approach. A form of filmmaking, largely given to fiction, asks the questions. In its long form it could be called documentary, but either way it is the understudy of cinema’s language in journalism.

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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