Innovating journalism by any means necessary, and by another name.
If it’s not broken why fix it. So is journalism broken? Reasonably, something in journalism is, because there’s a stream of innovations applied to make it better — financial returns and all. Yet arguably, despite one innovation after another, journalism’s problems never seem to go away. Is it in rude health? Certainly Not! Last week’s multiple layoffs at Buzzfeed and Huff post point to something.
When journalists, from newspapers, broadcasting and online were questioned across the globe, for a State of the Media report they answered that because of “fake news” readers can’t trust what they read. Other reports arrive at similar findings e.g. LSE’s Truth, Trust and Credibility. That was 2018.
Yet in 2005, some of the most high profile and respected practitioners and academics in journalism: Phil Meyer, Jay Rosen, Dori Maynard, Craig Newmark etc. gathering at a conference in San Antonio also felt something was broken in journalism. I remember it well because I was amongst the speakers.
The attendants sought to answer the question: A Wake Up Call — Can Trust and Quality Save Journalism? “Fake news” in what we know of it today wasn’t a feature of journalism’s debris ridden landscape, yet something else was wrong.
Go back further and in 2002, Ian Hargreaves, now Professor Hargreaves and James Thomas uncover problems with news in New News, Old News. It’s too elitist is one of their findings. Meantime, the industry’s magazine Broadcast accuses the news industry of effectively being boring by telling the same old stories.
In the 1990s journalism was defibrillated as several entrepreneurs in cable news spotted multiple achilles. We could go back further still. In television terms to the 1950s and the birth of tv news, or the 18th century and rise in newspaper journalism. Time and time again something is broken in journalism. This is not to deny good journalism exist and it hasn’t benefited society. Stay with me, but the question is was it ever right?
I’m giving a brown paper bag disco next week to colleagues at the new university, Cardiff School of Journalism, I’ve recently joined. The short blurb accompanying the talk says:
Innovation, this era’s imprimatur, Dr David Dunkley Gyimah’s water cooler disco on innovation navigates around playful things such as the flip, the moog, bass, simus, the lab, and collision from his past and arrives at the question, what’s the point? And what the hell it’s got to do with journalism?
Innovation is a peculiar topic. To be called an innovator in the 17th century was to unflatteringly be labelled an imitator — an insult. It morphs then into inventor and now seems to have aggressively parked on an invention involving tech geared towards the market. This Ngram of google-indexed books gives some idea of its rise in popularity against invention, and perhaps boosted by the word “tech”. Note the near parallel rise between the two.
I suspect no one’s going to turn up to my brown paper bag given the tone it strikes, but I’m attempting to look at the inventiveness within journalism training which has become a commercial sporting game. And then how these innovations serve journalism?
Innovate or become invisible. First things first, I’ll talk about the latter, Innovation in journalism!
To answer this, I’m going to place newspapers to one side. They’re no less affected by my thought experiment, but you can read a comprehensive account of print journalism’s issues in Power and Responsibility by James Curran and Professor Jean Seaton, Social Media History and the Media by Asa Briggs and Peter Burke, and My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism by Andrew Marr. Instead I’ll look at television through a series of propositions.
If we’re going to talk about innovation in journalism you and I could start by understanding what we mean by journalism. It’s a simple and unnecessary task perhaps, but while different regions, networks, executives may reasonably be confident it has to do with gathering and disseminating reports, and even putting truth to power, or at times informing or entertaining, how it gets there, or its end goal vary widely, and hence become contestable. It’s served scholars and entrepreneurs well for that reason.
Understanding journalism wouldn’t be a problem per se if those sitting on its throne were brutally honest and made it abundantly clear to consumers there is no one journalism or reportage in television news. You say tomato, (too-may-tow)I say tomato (to-mar-toh). Thing is, I know that, you know that, but I’d bet viewers understand brexit better than they do this chasm in journalism.
In the way you might think of a doctor or engineer solving a problem, that’s not the same with journalism. There’s also no hippocratic oath. Journalism is not a unitary body.
In Japan, news journalism operates one way as I found out speaking to friends at NHK (read also Prof Hargreaves’s Journalism — a very short introduction). In Russia, TV News is something else; in the US the lack of a regulatory body for impartiality mixed with the first amendment gives an interesting edge to TV News, coupled with it’s exuberance for showbusiness (see Neil Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death).
And in Ghana how about this from one of its most innovative journalists Anas Aremeyaw Anas featured in this month’s The World Today published by Chatham House. He sees his goal as solving society’s ills.
if I do investigations that involve criminals and I have the evidence I collaborate with the police service. I give them the evidence and then we make the arrest together and I go to court and testify. This might sound a bit unrealistic to western journalists because he will think what's your job? He will say just write the story and let them read it in their bedrooms and it'll be fine. I say no to this because I know my society.
He’s not alone. In 2006, I made this with my Masters students, “IF”. Watch as Daniel Kofi (in vision and at 1.05) talks about what journalism should be.
Just as there are different motives and outcomes for news journalism across the world, journalism is measured by the Western model, and even then is that UK, EU or US? Again, not a problem but I would wager the public largely isn’t aware of this? As a gauge of the media’s interest in public journalism, this N-gram tells its story.
Then this. One of the interesting things in the development of say art, or literature, is how different writing styles or art emerged as a zeitgeist towards understanding or addressing social and political issues in an innovative way. Both in some way foregrounded changes to society.
Hence in literature you can trace the development of the essay-novella and equitone and literary works such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe; the novel in Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, biographies and multilayered approach, the conscious streaming and reflections in Ulysses and poetics of excess in Marlon James’ reggae-influenced in context and language A Brief History of Seven Killings.
In Art, you can chart Renaissance, Neoclassical Realism, Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Art deco, and Pop Art are all examples of styles that emerged — somehow seeking to capture society of the time
In TV journalism, it’s difficult to name different acknowledged style, and I’d not referring to different fields or categories e.g. political journalism and digital journalism. In the 1970s there was action news, and in the 1980s the BBC introduced ‘mission to explain’, but what else? Interesting too as you consider this; that if a doctor or engineer works online they’re not referred to as digital doctors or engineers.
Generally, journalism (yep it’s not one body, I know) has an aversion towards leading reforms to meet evolving societal changes, often sticking to its view and set of values.
It relies on the application of age-old and trusted methods to shape its stories in spite of dramatic changes to society
Who tells the story, which subjects are chosen and who shapes the output is more or less the same in 1960s as it is today in spite of changes to the country’s population and concomitant issues. To that end the most obvious innovations continually allude the industry.
Meantime, whilst arriving at a reporting style it’s as if journalism’s scions were telling viewers that they could rest assured that the field of language and interpretation has finally been cracked within what is truth and interpretation.
Imagine the humility of an outfit telling you at the beginning of the show, that we’re trying our best to bring you news of what happened, and that we won’t always get it right, so we rely on you. Or that you could obtain on-air stats for how the reporter (see video illustration below) was believed and their sentiment analysis. Or otherwise the viewer realising that the journalist’s background mattered in the story. That would be something.
In Grace Wyndham Goldies’s Facing the Nation, we see glimpses of a debate from the 1930s onwards which bedevils the industry today. In constructing a style of storytelling which was no mean feat and which would become a universal norm — the news package — the viewers were left in the dark.
Executives took the tools and framework that made cinema (a loaded form of storytelling); the shot, distance and framing, B-roll, pans, cut -away, narration but ignored the depth and elasticity of meaning making the viewer would bring to interpreting what was on screen. This was what Stuart Hall’s reception theory, Brian Winston’s Glasgow (University) Media Group and Direct Cinema pioneer Robert Drew were talking about.
Television news was constructed from the langue of moving images, whose source was, and is, cinema, or if that disagrees with moving image storytelling. As this clip from Deborah Turness ( then at ITN, now NBC senior news executive) shows she, and others, are looking for that something else.
Innovation by any other means. D’you mean art?
One of my most favoured media quotations comes from one of the most revered media figures in history, Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, who asks
If men were able to be convinced that art is precise advance knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology would they all become artists. Or would they begin a careful translation of new art forms into social navigation charts. I'm curious to know what would happen if art was suddenly seen for what it is namely the exact information and how to arrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties.
I’m a juror for the most revered television journalism awards in the UK, the RTS. And the winners and competitors more often than not exhibit works of art.
But largely television journalism refrains, or doesn’t want to admit any connection to news as an art form. New forms are put into social navigation charts e.g. mobile journalism or otherwise the work of talented journalists aren’t viewed as a way to arrange our psyche to anticipate the next blow. Surely if that was the case, the news industry wouldn’t time and time again be gamed by spin, marketeers, lobbyists and politicians.
When it comes to innovation, bar the new shiny Star Trek studios, television journalism has been found continually lagging behind the pioneering curve. It wasn’t television that revolutionised cameras, it’s news presentation was borrowed from chat shows, and it barely understood the Internet and associated social media as the UK contemplates its own Netflix type operation. There’s a clear path toward a world that we can create together–one driven by networks, not audiences, writes Gina Bianchini — an influencer or linkedin behind Mighty Networks.
They cracked it!
We can trace a slew of innovation within television, from cameras, studio settings, satellite transmissions and latterly in online and its use of video players alongside social media. Yet as a thought experiment, what if you could:
- innovate the story form itself
- Innovate by dint of those telling the story
- Innovate within the range of stories.
This thought experiment actual exists in a little known experiment in British television news called Channel One.
Unlike any other news outlet in British television you can mention today, out of the stations thirty journalists, those from Black, Asian or ethnic backgrounds, or that were women was above the average of any mainstream outfit then and today.
The result was a varying range of stories, which often emerged from direct contact with the journalists’ viewers. Onscreen, further innovations were evident. Its journalists abandoned the industry’s style by mixing up genres to cinema — the very thing 40 years ago was abandoned. Dimitri Doganis (2nd back row, 2nd from right below photo) was one of the youngest journalists. Today, he’s an Oscar nominated, BAFTA winning filmmaker who founded RAW TV and talks about innovation at Channel One.
I reserve the greatest sense of innovation for the fact this little known outfit Channel One pioneered videojournalism, selfies, multiple storytelling and reality programming. Disclosure! I was part of that outfit ( 2nd row, 1st left), as you can see from this photo below.
A decade later that experience and craft skill would lead to me winning the Knight Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism, International Videojournalism Award and other labels.
Many of the gang of thirty continue to make an impact on the industry in one shape or another: Marcel Theroux (back row, 3rd right) makes exemplary documentaries (as does his brother Louis); Rav Vadgama @TVRav ( not in the picture) is the videojournalist/ cameraman/ producer/ director who brings stories with correspondents to Good Morning Britain, Sacha Van Straten @svanstraten to my right is doing amazing things in technology with education, and Rachel Ellison (front row, Left kneeling) is an MBE, having worked in Afghanistan.
On the left too is Nick Pollard, the MD of Channel One, who is a highly respected journalist; Nick Hart, now a senior exec at Turner ; Pat Loughrey who was previously head of BBC’s Nations and Regions and is now the VC of Goldsmith, and also Professor Stewart Purvis from ITN and Ofcom. Now part of City University
Over the years I’ve amassed an eclectic entry of work assignments at — BBC WS radio ( South Africa’ Mandela’s inauguration) , Newsnight, Channel 4 News (Jon Snow producer), BBC Reportage, which if you ask anyone into the hip and fashionable and is over forty will tell you Reportage was it; ABC News, dotcom entrepreneur/editor, Artist ( Southbank Centre) coder and educator (Nato War Games).
Many of today’s innovations, as I gather my kit for storytelling on and offline have their seeds in Channel One, not just in film making, but in innovatory ways of teaching journalism. That experience combined with my background too as an Applied Chemist, passion for art and deep interest in culture and politics, informs a science/art approach to training — my blue print — which will be my next post. Here cognitivism, behavioural theory, parts of neuroscience and psychology frame journalism. Mind what we’re told to do, but what’s going on in our brains and how have journalism’s adversaries exploited this to journalism detriment.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah presenting at the ONA conference in New York. David is one of @medium’s top writers in journalism.