I was moments from going on air to co-present my weekly show on BBC Radio London, when standing in the BBC newsroom watching LA in flames, stores being looted, a network television reporter said something that took our breath away.
His voice over talked about black people looting, but the pictures showed black and white people hauling electronic goods from a wrecked shop.
How could the journalist have got it so wrong? One of the producers (Black) I was next to was livid. She called BBC’s main newsrooms and complained.
It’s 29th April 1992, the LA riots.
Two reasons why I remember that event.
- Firstly, the images from LA were pure cinema — a Hitchcockian phrase. You stood in awe watching the screen. No words needed.
- Secondly, the profound error by the journalist.
In that moment, two issues that have come to dominate my journalism career, surfaced. In the years that followed they’ve spiked here and there bringing attention to journalism practice, but it would be 28 years later before they would shoot through normalised boundaries of consciousness.
2020 has thus far witnessed two major events that should reset the way we tell stories and what we call news. A pandemic ricochetting into a pandemedia. Black lives Matters protested systemic injustices, but it was also a clarion call for diversity, diversity in industries, such as journalism. How? It’s about language and power.
The panacea is beyond lip service and training programmes. To tell stories, because that’s what journalism is, requires looking at the story and the storyteller, the content and content maker. Who makes decisions ? Who frames the story? Who sees it through a different lens from their upbringing?
Historian David Olusoga’s powerful MacTaggart lecture to the television industry reminded delegates that being different mattered, stating:
I am not saying that the viewpoints of Black people or Asian people are better or more deserving of consideration than those of our white colleagues, it is just that they are different, because our lives and our experiences are different. And here ‘different’ doesn’t mean more or less impartial. We can have a different perspective and still be just as impartial and as objective as anyone else.
The use of the N-word by the BBC, its doubling down, wasn’t simply an error. It occurred because of a lack of diversity in senior execs who would have ensured journalists resist that mistake and mistake calling all the looters in the LA Riots black.
As a British-Ghanaian who’s worked across several news outlets and garnered critical attention from industry professionals, I agree with Olusoga’s point and how that shapes stories.
In South Africa, as a correspondent I interviewed Dirk Coetzee, the head of a police assassin squad. The interview ended with Coetzee chuckling. Had this been five years earlier with me standing this close to him, he said, I’d be staring down the barrel of his gun.
Olusoga referenced how and why people left the BBC. I was one of them. Today a number of high profile colleagues (academics and journalists) and I are close to launching a project that we believe will make an important contributor to discourse in this area.
One of the most apt descriptions of journalism by the prolific and respected Professor Michael Schudson in the Power of News is the following which ties in with my second issue.
Journalism is a cultural form shaped by literary conventions and social practices developed over time. This summation captures both the absolute requisite for diversity via culture, social and literary codes, but also provides some explanation why journalism 2020 is struggling to keep pace in its current form. Cultures change. Social practices too. But while journalism has stuttered to keep up, one universal story form has risen to the challenge.
2020 will be time stamped for the impact of Covid-19. Here’s a related question. In the next ten seconds name a news film that has left an indelible impression on you in this crisis?
If you’re an avid news watcher the chances are you’ll mention the BBC’s Clive Myrie’s set of five films in a week within a hospital and Al Jazeera’s Raul Gallego Abellan film The Virus. When you watch these films they cannot be unseen. They play on the mind, on time and space. It is research shows viewers liken these to watching cinema.
News journalism’s overriding convention has been to shine a light on issues in a form called the package. Its storytelling regime is its restriction acknowledged by one of the most powerful news execs, NBC’s Deborah Turness, whom I interviewed before she joined NBC. Abellan has been making cinema films for 15 years but agrees that only recently is it gaining wider traction.
Fifteen years ago, there was a perceptible, but small shift, I detected training the UK’s first regional newspaper journalists to become video journalists for the Press Association. That film earned me a mini glass statue for the prize of international videojournalist courtesy of ZDF’s -sponsored event in Berlin.
The shift was enough to warrant a six year part time PhD study. This was colossal, covering storytelling, cognitivism, the science of thinking (neuroscience) and game theory and arrived at a junction called Cinema Journalism.
The research meant interviewing the creme of British, and American Journalism such as Robert Drew. It was Drew whom in the 1960s devised a form of storytelling called Direct Cinema or otherwise Cinema Verite (cinema truths). Cinema had its first collocation with journalism — a huge breakthrough.
Today Cinema Verite is common place, but where Drew’s work and legacy left off that inspired me was the philosophy of different cinemas and that cinema evolves. Its fictional form in the 1940s is different to that in 2020 via use of camera and framing, movement, mis en scene, and narrative styles. This impacts journalism too. I explain in the IJNet interview here.
At a time when current journalism practices find it difficult to draw in viewers or find creative ways of overcoming dead cats and political lies Cinema Journalists are finding ways. My research finds a burgeoning number, and has involved sharing and training journalists across several countries e.g. Russia, India, China, Egypt and the near the Syrian border.
The confirmation is for those who understand any number of cinema forms and its narrativity, it changes their journalism; their films are more receptive. They win awards.
Two months ago as part of my ongoing research I interviewed Myrie and Abellan which is to be featured in a book, but the essence of what both said, and I agreed, is that this trade craft they’ve mastered is designed to keep viewers transfixed, and it’ss deeply appreciated. One of Abellan’s execs wrote to him thanking him for his film acknowledging she shed tears.
The issue with journalism isn’t that it doesn’t want to change; it’s problematised by the character of its conventions. Journalism execs with twenty, thirty years of service know how it works, so find it difficult to embrace a new philosophy. Vice.com, which I explain in a previous post, does cinema journalism and it does so without rocking the CEO’s ideology.
It was with this research to hand that last year we launched a digital Lab at Cardiff University. which embraced design and computation thinking, alongside behavioural psychology and cinema journalism.
Four years earlier I’d headed up a digital lab where we prototyped storytelling at large which acknowledged Schudson’s cultural, literary and social parameters in cinema journalism, as well as tech’s involvement (Read here and here). The university wrote about a Key note address to one of London’s leading entrepreneurial bodies the Guild of Entrepreneurs who supported us:
He (David) reminded the audience that storytelling embraces behavioural and neuroscience, which is now fed into the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB MA. Finally, he touched on the value of diversity in strengthening the creativity of teams, and the importance of discarding monomyths and singular narratives that often skew a wider truth.
Problem solving is the means to storytelling. Here tech is in service to journalism not the other way around. And in this new storytelling cinema is in service to journalism.
The proof hereon has been the audience’s reception, from presenting at Apple’s flag ship store in London, in Russia with award winning, to the BFI’s Annual media summit. Cinema journalism is finally coming of age.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a recognised expert in innovation in journalism, the first UK recipient to win a Knight Batten Award. On Medium he is one of the top 12 writers in Journalism. His career spans thirty years working at the edges of new ideas and technologies. He lectures at Cardiff University. More on him here