How to become a better 2020 reporter in the age of Donald Trump

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It’s a slow sunny day in London and I’m off work when I receive a call from my television agent, Jacquie Evans. Was I available for a photoshoot with other Londoners around diversity? Not much beyond that I’m told, but well, she’s my agent and I’m willing to go to the cliff to jump. I go.

1999 carries a certain magic. The world may end next year. Computers will cease up because of the the millennium bug, some churches are murmuring about the second coming and the media world faces a now ever maturing Internet.

The magic 8 mbit/s — the minimum speed for transmitting video is drawing nigh. This will open up the doors for video on the web. Journalism, thus, is under threat and dotcom mania is about to wreak havoc.

Today, 2019, carries a certain 1999 swagger about it. The Internet is matured (soon to be 5g) and journalism and media face threats on the horizon.

Now it’s artificial intelligence and the disinformation war that are causing concern. I won’t use the “F” word because it merely strengthens the agenda of those who promote it.

In a highly popular video in 2008 called “Did you Know” the authors said,

The top 10 in-demand jobs did not exist in 2004. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems.

So I ask the question what will you be doing in 2023? In forthcoming posts from lectures I drill down into styles, sources and ideas in reporting.

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Photo taken by David at Beijing Airport, designed in Photoshop

AI

These three videos below help paint a picture. In my lecture I chose specific parts and edited them together. Because of copyright, I can’t show that so here are the originals.

  • In the first, IBM show how Watson helped them edit a trailer for a Hollywood film.
  • Lexus Cars created a commercial using A.I.
  • and the Guardian featured this video about A.I. writing articles.

A general understanding is A.I. will make inroads into everyone’s job, including journalism and shake up things. Alex Hern writing for the Guardian calls this impact “The escalator from hell”. This is not the news you banked on looking to start a career in journalism. “What? You’re telling me I’ve chosen a career in which I have no job prospects?”, could be a valid question from any student.

However, a study of media, journalism history and emotional intelligence should prompt some questions and critical thinking.

  • What can I find out about A.I. and its affect on journalism?
  • What new skills might I need then?

Research (Google?). See what you find out?

Newsrewired, one of the most popular news events in the UK asks a similar question for its delegates in November 2019. “What skills do you need in 2020?”

For all that is touted positively about A.I. there is trouble ahead. Algorithms have parents. They write the code and if those coders don’t come from diverse backgrounds, we’re constructing an unequal world. This. Wired report, The Best Algorithms Struggle to Recognize Black Faces Equally

Disinformation

Then there’s the disinformation war. It’s always existed, but in recent times has become more visible, and prominent. It now embraces outright flagrant lying, a systematic obfuscation of the truth and the phrase of the moment, “gaslighting”. Our personal data that shows our habits and behaviours are being mined and more often commercially exploited by companies.

These following videos map out the problem.

  • Adam Westbrook’s Operation Infektion showing Russian spies talking about “active measures” — the dark art of gaslighting.
  • The Great Hack (Netflix) delved into the work of Cambridge Analytica (CA) and its cast using personal data to target the unsuspecting.
  • And then CA’s chief executive Alexander Nix explains how his company uses psycho graphics to market specific messages to people.

The Future

To navigate the future then will require news skills built upon traditional journalism training to detect and thwart disinformation, and the malevolent uses of A.I.

Search engines, mobile phones, social media and its many apps all make use of algorithms used for A.I. As a writer, I’ve learned to use tools to strengthen my writing. For instance, if you’ve read this far, the chances are you were first attracted by the title:

How to become a better 2020 reporter in the age of Donald Trump

Headline analysers like Sharethrough provide feedback on probabilities of readers’ engagement. I tried about five titles before this one.

I’ve come to label this futurist student-turned-journalist as a character, #student.you. She’s not a figment of my imagination, but a composite of former students who previously overcame their own challenges completing their final project . They’re from diverse backgrounds, have diverse interests and have an insatiable appetite to connect (watch here).

#student.you

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Today #student.you would do well to acknowledge or understand a number of things, such as:

  • What news is (again) and why young people aren’t engaging with TV news?
  • The differences between traditional (old) forms of journalism and new forms.
  • Values, such as objectivity and impartiality and their place in journalism.
  • The relationship between Trust and Ethics for journalism and the audience
  • And how ownership of a newspaper or media outfit invariably steers the form and style of journalism ( which is questionable).
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These parameters are often presented as singular boxed issues, but in truth, they are a matrix of interconnected themes, a political economy of sorts.

Take Buzzfeed as an exemplar, which burst onto the scene in 2006. How could it appeal to new constituents, what sorts of stories would work and how could they make money?

Buzzfeed’s storytelling made use marking techniques utilising empathy etc. and the curiosity of quizzes, listicles, as well as cats. It mined Maslow’s hierarchy in appealing to audiences online. Its business was journalism and, for instance, paid journalism — marketing. Its success was teaching a generation new journalism skills and it’s been so successful that when staff members left the company they used these very techniques to boost personal profiles.

In 2011, Buzzfeed’s strategy and model could bring in a number of key journalists Ben Smith, Mark Schoofs and Janine Gibson, to drive investigative journalism with stories, such as the Trump dossier allegation and Kevin Spacey sexual misconduct allegation.

So returning to the question, “How to become a better 2020 reporter in the age of Donald Trump”, what sort of skills might you need?

The World Economic Forum’s display ranks the most in-demand skills required for a future workforce. It puts complex problem solving at first place, whilst creativity shoots from spot 10 in 2015 to no. 3 in 2020, but what about 2023? A quick test with cohorts often reveals differences. Creativity, emotional intelligence, critical thinking and complex problem solving often compete for first place. If you were tasked with filling in the 2023 slot what would you do?

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By now, we’ve acknowledge the impact of AI, and data. We’ll spend some time now being made aware of journalism’s core issues, its history, tech, diversity and storytelling.

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In the Lexus car video, one of the execs says the following, that “in order to make an intuitive advert, they needed to know what is intuition?” It’s of doubly interest because if you’re new to journalism, or set in your ways, it’s likely judgements you’ll be making will be based on intuition, a gut feeling, rather than learned behaviour.

Instinct

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Instinct is gut behaviour and that behaviour can be learned. It’s how we react to events, without reflecting or critical thinking. To illustrate this, here’s a story from when I was in Vancouver. The ranger, pointing, is telling us about his encounter with a bear.

Ranger: So I was snoozing on the porch and then this bear appears.

Me: What did you do?

Ranger: “Oh, you know, I kinda stared at it calmly”.

Me: How close was it?

Ranger: “Oh close enough, about say a couple of metres”.

Gasp

So how did the ranger live to tell the tale? If you’ve knowledge of bears, you’ll know there are three different kinds, the brown ( grizzly), black and Polar.
You’ll not find a polar in these regions of Vancouver, but if you do encounter a black or brown, they require different strategies to survive. The natural instinct is to run, but that’s the last thing you should do. Learned behaviour says to face off a Grizzly either play dead or fight with everything you have and with a black bear, slowly and calmly talk to yourself and back off making yourself big. Leonardo DiCaprio’s scene in this scene in The Revenant brings this home

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Reacting quickly to events means sometimes our instincts gets things wrong. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel award winner Daniel Kahneman says this simple math problem above trips up many people. What’s the answer?

Instinct too means you’ll watch this (below) and see the lady spinning in one direction, say clockwise. The lack of depth and context fools your brain into seeing this illusion, but you can teach yourself to make her reverse and go anticlockwise, or even turn at will?

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Kahneman writes about instinct (see pg 222–254)as well as the several biases now orbiting disinformation, in his book that frankly all new journalists should be aware of.

He cites the Meehl test, which considered how statistical formulas for progression are better than intuitive judgements — even amongst professionals.

Consider this, you want to put together a report on an issue you know little about, but consider yourself intelligent. The instinct would be to attack the task based on prior knowledge. An alternative would be to devise, or otherwise seek a set of parameters which frame what makes a report a must read.

By studying sets of previous reports that are well received this will provide you with patterned data, that by Meehl’s findings, are better than instinct. In a sense you’re human to what A.I.seeks to achieve. Main difference is you’re not as fast and can’t match A.I.s algorithm for crunching large data.

In 2006, when bloggers challenged the hegemony of journalism professionals, they could argue who needs a journalism degree? Instinct! Instinct, instinct. The art of writing got you through. Instinct, helpful such as it is, can’t quite square up to critical knowledge. If one is about flight (needed) what Kahneman calls system 1, the other is about thinking “why run” (system 2).

Yet Instinct’s magic has its place in the “everyday experience of memory”. When is a professional’s intuition, related to skill, trustworthy, asks Kahneman. As a skill when its been learned over a lengthy period and the environment for learning is predictable.

Writing in the Guardian, George P Lakoff and Gil Duran draw the readers’ attention to the war of disinformation and how Trump has turned words into weapons and that he’s winning the linguistic war. They go onto say this:

Scientists, marketeers, advertisers and salespeople understand these principles. So do Russian and Islamic State hackers. But most reporters and editors clearly don’t ( my emphasis in bold).

You should!

Journalism Core

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Each morning I have the opportunity of walking through this Harry Porteresque woods. As I looked at the tall trees, it struck me how there’s an analogy with journalism.

You might refer to journalism as if its one hegemonic body, in the same way as you could entering the woods, but each of these trees is unique in its own way. Each of these trees represents a different genre of journalism.

This approach helps understand why it’s a problem often referencing mainstream media as the same and social media as one body. US TV journalism and UK TV journalism have their differences, just as social media is a collection of different, often wide views.

However, it would be fairly safe-ish to say that before the advent of mass digital around 2000 there were easily recognisable genres of journalism, such as radio, magazine, television, newspapers etc. Not today. It’s partly an indictment of traditional journalism and also the entrepreneurial spirit of many that today there are several different genres, which require different approaches. It’s all but impossible to learn these proficiently in a year, but being aware of them would be highly beneficial and strengthen your craft.

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Somewhere in there is my own practice of cinema journalism which has been featured in several academic books. It’s a sibling of videojournalism which the industry strafed. It emerges from the tropes of singularly the most powerful, widespread, immersive storytelling form conceived — cinema. It’s been around but news executives have tended to ignore it in name, but not in practice.

The challenge for news and journalism is reaching an audience of young adults. Many have failed, some have fared well e.g. Teen Vogue, Vice, Buzz Feed and platforms like Instagram and Snap Chat.

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A lament in journalism is the lack of knowledge in history as context for understanding stories, or otherwise the history of media and its theories. If you were studying literature, it’s a fair bet you’d know about Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens and the rest. In his book simple called News, philosopher Alain de Botton contrasts how young people are taught about art and literature, but the single most powerful medium that will impact their lives, news, isn’t taught critically until usually they take a degree or are in their late teens. Growing up you’re taught to critique The Merchant of Venice, but not the front page of a newspaper.

Journalism History

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The three samples chosen provide invaluable insights into journalism.

  • Nieman Lab shows that journalism’s financial struggles is nothing new
  • whilst Andrew Marr’s book gives a solid grounding in the early days of journalism
  • and in Power and Responsibility the author’s Prof Jean Seaton and James Curran describe how newspapers became a symbol for power and control.
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So, as a proto journalist how do you scale the many hurdles in front of you.

Over the course of the year, these issues will become evident, but it’s also important to start your conversations, engaging on various platforms in and outside lectures.

I’ll be framing and revisiting these in my lectures. Now I’ll turn the attention on me, using an approach called the Reflective Practitioner which was the defence used in my doctorate studies from my experience in the field.

Reflective Practitioner

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I’ve found it useful too, because by reflecting on work, it reveals talking or anchor points to engage with others. You’ll find work from Beirut, Egypt, Russia, China , near the Syrian border and India to name a few places.

In the past I might get asked why I’ve not spoken about things in my past such as conflict reporting. It‘s not been intentional. There’s a natural tendency not to talk about oneself to avoid self-aggrandisement. But if you think about it, it’s difficult, if not nay impossible to squeeze thirty years of journalism into fixed-time lectures or presentations. Academia, like journalism should become a conversation, just as it can do in newsrooms.

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In 1999 following my agent’s advice, I was photographed and featured in the London Evening Standard centre page alongside some notable figures e.g. Zadie Smith and Dotun Adebayo. We were the Young Gifted and Black. I can easily strip myself of such hyperbole, but what was it as I reflected that the Evening Standard were interested in.

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For that I’ll delve further back to 1994, when a fundamental shift in the way the industry reported was accepted by the NUJ ( National Union of Journalists). Until then a crew of five or three (middle picture) went out on a story. In 1994 in the UK videojournalism took off. We not only made our own films, but as a presenter controlled our own camera and autocue.

The three things to take away from this, and yes, you could see more are:

  • Disruptions in technology are not new
  • It’s expedient to multiskill across platforms and genres
  • Take time to understand changes.

Today may of the pioneers in videojournalism are names in the industry having won BAFTAs and been knighted.

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When I was starting my career, like so many I wanted to become a foreign correspondent. In 1990 after working for BBC Newsnight and Reportage and unable to find work in the UK, I travelled to the hotspot story of the world, South Africa. There I quickly found new opportunities. I mixed radio broadcasting (here) for the BBC WS and Radio 4 docs with television making, such as this Through the Eyes of a Child made for the SABC.

Takeaways

  • Travel to the story. Get out of the office when you can.
  • Take extra caution on risk assessments.
  • and look too for content that could have a long shelf life.
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In 2005, five years after the London Evening Standard article, I produced some work which would win the Knight Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism. I found a way to produce video online before YouTube’s launch using code in Flash, HTML and CSS, whilst mixing photographs and texts to produce an online video magazine. I was told endlessly that isn’t journalism, but I had nothing to lose. You can find that work here as I update the site viewmagazine.tv

Takeaways

  • Find time for yourself to develop your passions. Don’t wait to be told or that it will become the status quo.
  • Don’t get overly comfortable doing what you do, and in marketing speech, cross lanes. Sources of innovation that I’ll speak about in the future emerge from mixing up disciplines.
  • Let people know too what you’re doing, like in a blog or instagram site
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The following year a film I made on training UK regional journalists to become videojournalists picked up an award at the annual videojournalism award in Germany. There were 420 entrants from 42 different countries.

Takeaways

  • Despite the fact we can do this stuff alone, share production credits and collaborate. This film was made possible through the help of the Press Association and Cleveland Police.
  • Build upon what you do best by associating with other key figures in your field of choice
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Technology has helped shape journalism, but we should be equally be wary of it, so we don’t lose sight of stories. This image above captures the different tech I have used over the years and the presentations at places like Apple.

Takeaway

Experiment and innovate. Failure is part of the process to start with, but learn quick to turn things around and work with people.

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These are some of the books that feature my practice. Often I’ll stumble upon them because of my propensity to read, read, read, which is the takeaway.

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At the heart of what journalism is, is storytelling. Some of the stories I have done involve speaking to past directors of the CIA, or diving deep in the oceans with professional army and navy divers. The best advice given to me by an editor was, if as a freelance you’re going to sell me a story, give me something my staff couldn’t do because of resources or lack of time.

I’ve also looked for mentors and exemplars that could guide me. To that end, I’ve bee grateful to Jon Snow Channel 4 News when I worked as one of his producers and Jude Kelly OBE when I was artist in residence at the Southbank Centre.

Takeaway

  • Be adventurous.
  • and be kind to those on their way up, because you’ll meet them on your way down.
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There are little, if any tablets of stones in journalism. No absolutes. Unlike 2+2=4, journalism can yield different results. It’s a matter of interpretation, how you and your audience think, and being able to defend your position.

And do finally to this, a round up of panoramic themes. The nuts and bolts of skills in journalism will soon follow, but the overarching panorama of “How to become a better 2020 reporter in the age of Donald Trump”, could include the following.

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In September, the University of Cardiff held its Future of Journalism conference, which attracted scholars from around the world. I chose three experts to ask interview about the state of journalism, and here’s what they said.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a senior lecturer at Jomec. He’s a co-investigator on Future of journalism projects and is on the advisory board for the British Library’s News Exhibition.

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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