Art of a New Int. VideoJournalism
A Brit, US Social Scientist, and Syrian Talent
By 3 O’clock in the afternoon, it dawned on me the magnitude of the story. We’re holed up in a hotel near the Turkish-Syrian border. That’s me standing on the bed, filming one of the journalists and speaking to a videojournalist whose out of shot and did not want to be on camera.
Young Syrian journalists in the room, fifteen in all, have taken huge risks to cross over. Their stories are powerful, yet untold, and international businesses regularly lift or take parts of their report with no remuneration.
We’re trying something called cinema journalism — an artistic form of journalism-news making. The story really doesn’t start here, but almost thirty years ago… …
Looking across the auditorium at some of the US’ most respected educators, Donald Schön presented a simple yet powerful tale he had recounted several times.
Its impact was no less emphatic for professionals who were not educators, such as designers, health workers, and for that matter journalists.
You’re riding a bike and you begin to fall to the left. How do you quickly regain your composure?
I don’t know
It’s an irrelevant question
The answer, the MIT social scientist said was to turn into the left. It has to do with the bike, which acts like a gyroscope, re-finding its centre of gravity. Racing car drivers braking around a bend at 200kph know this. But what about those who might say turn the other way? In practice, Schön continued you don’t fall off so what’s going on.
Often, we might know what to do, without necessarily being able to put this into words. This phenomenon Schön called reflection-in-action.
Doctors will sometimes detect an illness, not based on a clinical diagnosis but a hunch. Designers make use of reflection-in-action to ponder a new design, like the Stata Center in MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the concept appears impossible, and journalism?
Well, swathes of journalists have creatively thought through the process of compiling a report against a deadline when the odds have been stacked against them — but there’s a catch.
Schön’s address poked at education on the one hand and the professions on the other. There is an enslavement to the packaging of knowledge in academia he said, and the rigid modular form students are taught does not give rise to what he called reflection-in-action, or reflection-on-action. One is an ongoing process, the other occurs over time.
Here, students should have the artistic freedom to experiment, to develop new forms, to ‘make it up’ within the principle framework and assess their work thereafter. The idea caught on with many US educators doubling as action researchers who incorporated Schön’s teaching into their classes.
But arguably and generally television journalism has been in stasis.
A case in point, students undertaking television journalism or documentary will often work through how to create news and documentaries based on a rationale of the way things ARE done.
Not by what could be done, which is in stark contrast to visual or graphic designers who employ wide discursive methods to reach their goal.
News, we’re told, requires the use of one camera. You can’t use music, and the narrative has to be ‘he said, she said’ assuming total knowledge from the journalist. Often, it’s worth asking the lecturer or practitioner why?
Schön called this condition technical rationality. In one of several books,The Reflective Practitioner, published four years earlier from his 1987 AGM talk to the American Educational Research Association, Schön elaborated.
Technical rationality confines many professions to be rooted in a scientific norm of practice, what’s called positivism where data is derived from logical and mathematical reasoning.
It leaves little room for much needed artistry in experiments that would expand knowledge in ways that are unpredictable. A popular way to look at the two systems, postivism and reflection-in-action based on artistic methods, is the Apollo 13 near disaster.
If it was logic that got the crew nearly to the moon, it was lengthy periods of reflection-in-action, tearing up the rule book, shown in the film by Gary Sinese’s character that got them safely back to earth.
Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 Copyright: © 1995 Universal Pictures
The Reflective Practitioner has since become one of the most cited and talked about books for researchers talking about their practice.
Whilst journalism is not included in Schön’s book, the similarities are clear. The way television journalism is, and delivered by experts, has been fixed for the last sixty years. It’s based on a positivism, so issues such as objectivity, balance, trust are thrust before student journalists by professionals as absolutes.
In 2001 when Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel published Elements of Journalism, a book synthesised from several industry meetings from conversations started at the Harvard Faculty club in 1997, issues such as objectivity were finally being jettisoned.
Kovach and Rosenstiel listed ten essentials of journalism, writing that:
Some readers may think items are missing here. Where is fairness? Where is balance? As we researched journalism’s past and looked to its future, it became clear that a number of famililar abd even useful ideas associated with news were to vague to rise to the level of essential principles of journalism. Fairness, for instance, is subjective a concept that it offered little guidance in how to operate.
While Schön is not, and neither am I, criticising the many hard-working educators and journalists who ply their craft, Schön’s reflection-in-action advocates change, not as a cosmetic procedure, but to advance our knowledge and profession. He states:
Our systems need to maintain their identity, and their ability to support the self-identity of those who belong to them, but they must at the same time be capable of transforming themselves.
Television news is a Porche, often presented in a Skoda body. It embraces a language system that is so vast, so rich in expression, but has confined itself to a scientific norm of practices.
The camera needs to be placed here — inevitably leading to the rule of thirds. The reporter’s job is to voice-over bits of the film where an interviewee isn’t speaking, and a report needs to be 1.20’.
All of these have specific reasons for how and why they were brilliant at the time and why they would work when NBC news pioneer Frank Reuven popularised the news package.
If reportage is the skill and knowledge of articulating complex issues to an audience, then even in these video-utopian times there is still a vast terrain that videojournalism is reluctant to enter.
The artistry derived from experimenting and peeling back from technical rationality lies within a journalism that embraces Schön’s reflection-in-action. Sadly, such artistry is not taught.
Call it an artistic form of videojournalism or even a hybrid form of cinema — which this author has spoken about at the International Festival of Journalism in Perugia, Apple stores in London, and CUNYs Reinvent TV in New York, in which Jeff Jarvis and Hal Straus convened a gathering of twenty professionals to examine the future of TV.
Young British Artists
In the UK an attempt at a new journalism happened twenty years ago to this day with the UK’s first officially recognised videojournalists.
Thirty British youngsters, many of whom were picked because they had never worked in television, were trained by the father of videojournalism Michael Rosenblum in an intensive three month regime.
The group made a serious stab at reworking television journalism though as yet there’s little evidence of their reflection-in-action being adopted by UK journalism.
I was one of them and over the years have become more familiar with reflective practice. But here’s the catch mentioned earlier. You can reflect, but you can’t affect change unless:
- You’re willing to step out of the conventions that so powerfully hold you
- You are in possession or are seeking to find this non conventional solution.
In my case I have looked to cinema and art for these, which would lead to incredible journey’s, such as becoming an artist-in-resident at the UK’s illustrious Southbank Centre, or travelling to near the Syrian border to make a film.
Channel One folded after four years but its legacy amongst the founding staff lives on. The history of Channel One and its practitioners was part of my doctorate research. The company folded after four years but its legacy amongst the founding staff lives on.
Today, social networks and the impact of the Net have finally forced institutional journalism to rethink its practices. They’ve been dragged here screaming.
But the field, at least in video, is still wide open. When Adam Westbrook, part of a new generation of videojournalists, and writers enquires about new artistic forms on the Net, he invokes a spirit of journalism, a reflection-in-action, that I believe became conscious amongst audiences 20 years ago and has for the last few years now, final acquired critical exposure.
David is a Knight Batten Winner in Innovation in Journalism and an international award-winning videojournalist. His journalism career spans 27 years working for outfits such as Channel 4 News, ABC News and Newsnight. He is part of the new Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster.