In the BBC’s auditorium, one of the its commanding journalists laid out the challenges he faced. Pressingly, that there should be context to reports to help viewers make greater sense of the issue.
It would, Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, said in a post written in 2014, take an age before editors accepted that within a report he could provide on the spot analysis.
There is journalism of the immediacy, an enduring and potent framing that proclaims what’s happening and is new.
Then there is a journalism that has untethered its moorings and when placed between an event and viewer is a deeper canvas of unfolding visual and literary knowledge.
Bowen, was in part referencing the latter making good on what broadcast journalism is, or should be, for the times and thereon. Times, more, have passed since.
Why the wait? There’s a standardised ritual about what news journalism is, and isn’t and it’s held intact by its acquired conventions. It’s like democracy. Don’t tinker, let alone try and change it. Watching scenes this week on Afghanistan, generally its standards were on display. New gripping pictures, little in the way of drama sequences, the rush to get a story on air. It’s the stuff of newsrooms, and awards, where I once worked.
Context; how the news story got to that place is the point. For example, in Afghanistan how was it that a C-17 taxing ready for take-off could have people clinging to the under carriage. A film following up how anyone might risk their life was largely lacking. Then again, editors would argue that’ll come later or not, but that the function of news is to provide what’s happening in the here and now. True ! But the world has also moved on some since the 1950s when the idea news reportage would about to be baked into an industry’s psyche.
If any viewer recounting an understanding of Afghanistan does so purely by those striking plane images, negating how life was in Afghanistan then there’s work need doing.
Author Raoul Martinez writes in Creating Freedom of a need for a shift in consciousness; “one that challenges the assumptions upon which our society is founded”. Few elite industry have held to conventions when the dynamics of society and culture are changing.
In the early 1990s, a new BBC Director General John Birt, also sensed something lacking in news for a while, and hence executed his grand scheme, ‘mission to explain’. That too sought to provide more contextual analysis to reportage for the BBC’s output, much needed at a time for the major wars such as the Bosnia conflict. I still wish we could have done more, said Vin Ray its then foreign editor years later conversing with him at London’s Frontline Club.
How can you help viewers make sense of what’s going on, and indeed how, if any, does it affects their own lives? What’s hidden from plain sight? How, as a storyteller do you make people care about something happening thousands of miles away that may have little dent on their livelihoods?
That’s not news’ job, some will say? It’s one thing to explain; it’s another for a report to help viewers see their own humanity at stake. That at least is one of the key tenants of cinema storytelling at large. You become the character, live the character’s pains, highs and excesses. For the traditional form of video/ television journalism this presents a challenge, because it shifts the epicentre of reporting down a path, which exists elsewhere, to which television has decried it has no business.
In a compelling opinion piece for Columbia Journalism Review, Journalist, producer and educator Peter W. Klein writes how “Journalism failed in Afghanistan too”.
“Generations of reporters have travelled to war zones to gloriously “bear witness,” thanked all the while for their bravery, documenting battles and their aftermaths” says Klein, adding. “We give play-by-plays of skirmishes, document derring-do, and photograph the limbless and lifeless victims”.
The issue he writes is, “What we often fail to do is step back and reflect on the meaning of the larger war, and its likely legacy. Patriotism plays a part, especially if a reporter is covering troops from their own country”.
Klein’s piece on war correspondents in particular serves as a reminder for international storytelling that moves the viewer’s cognitive dial set against competing resources and time.
Klein surfaces research about how wars tend to be covered; the episodic focusing on characters and the here and now, and thematic — which possesses greater analysis. Stars & Stripes editor Erik Slavin, behind the research, shows how the episodic was the common form in papers.
I too having covered conflicts in South Africa would be partisan to this in fulfilling an editor’s needs. But in becoming a videojournalist in the mid 90s (one of the first in Europe), following on with a doctorate, I begun to question this form of storytelling.
It wasn’t that journalism was at fault, but how a dynamic language and visual form had institutions maintaining its status quo. It would be like modern architects looking to Baroque — still a revered form of architecture, except society and culture had moved on.
Today, the impact of the Net and Social Media has given voice to others to assert changes. Solutions journalism seeks solutions and resolutions to coverage. Slow journalism begs for more consideration. Mobile journalism maintains if you have a mobile phone, it can easily double, or replace a bespoke camera.
All of these have enriched journalism in ways that offers alternatives, or approaches and somewhere in there, lost in the thicket, is the form that is as old as the days. It’s been present over the years — from the Russian newsreel maker Dziga Vertov, the absorbingly award winning fictionalised-based-on fact Battle of San Pietro by John Huston and Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly “I Can Hear It Now: 1933–1945”.
Robert Drew’s films were designed as news, he told me, but they were dismissed as incomplete or documentary at best by editors. He elaborates below in this interview.
More recently the work of notable videojournalists e.g. Raul Gallego Abellan and award winning broadcasters are making their mark.
That style epitomised in the metaverse world of cinema explains how a cineist, a director would bring to their story telling to viewers. It sounds absurd. Generally, the cinema universe is large, it isn’t about fiction, and at best it isn’t afraid of nuances. It can look to bring different arcs together to tell more complete stories, and engages an expansive cognitivism in storytelling, albeit too with time to explain.
As I watched the many people on the Kabul’s tarmac, I thought of those who would be going home, will be sleeping uncomfortably readying themselves for the next day. An arc showing this tense evening and how and why people would want to get to the airport before dawn, was a scene that would add context. Do you realise when you watch television journalism proportionally few feature events at night, particularly in people’s homes?
The group of journalists who often engage an empathetic context to story telling generally refer to themselves as a type of videojournalist agnostic to any equipment being used. They lean towards an adept use of the elements of reporting to provide a cinema experience. There are a number of ways to identify their work.
They use cinema references and directors to explain their work.
Their work, assessed by audiences and professionals draws comparisons with fictional cinema works like Nomadland (2020) or Minari (2020). They often win awards.
For me they’ve come to be known as cinema journalist. It’s not a radical thought. Drew referred to his practice as Direct Cinema/ Cinema Verite and himself as a journalist using cinema’s paradigms.
I thought back too to a story on the Syrian border and how we tried to gain a psychological insight into our characters
It isn’t just about gripping pictures but the style of communicating a story that explicitly shows you what’s happening but symbolically wants you to experience being in that moment.
It’s a craft skill that more often once learned, as my research shows, often drives its practitioners to the big screen or doc forms. Yet its consideration as part of the coterie of journalism forms may go somewhere in making audiences, in different ways, better understand events hundreds and thousands of miles away — if they have the chance.
It is a supposed strange intersection of storytelling that at its heart is art. That sounds like an anathema, and I’ve come across many journalists who eschew journalism stories as anything closing in on art. To do so is ridiculous because of framings. Their right too when you consider their functional references.
But I draw your attention to storytelling once overseen by the powerful Academy de Baux that deified neoclassic storytelling in Jacque-Louis David (1784–1825) and Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) as the norm.
And then, then, came the Impressionists who disrupted many frames quite literally. I’m never called myself an Impressionist, ( how dare I?) but I was humbled and unworthy when one of the UK’s leading critical film maker and author Mark Cousins said the following.
The BBC’s Clive Myrie who won television journalist of the year in conversation with me shows a pragmatism how it’s possible in a series of podcasts clips, such as this, to mind set oneself to tell riveting stories.
Here’s my video I played presenting at Apple Store, London.