It’s not just what you say but how you say it, and how often, should alarm no one in journalism, but today it’s still possible to be shocked by the indifference to this.
There’s one strand of journalism that should be the shield for society where the voice of citizens counts for nowt outside an election run, and that’s journalism that holds people in power to account. Call it news or investigative journalism, it is nothing resembling entertainment, sport, fashion or journalism of celebrities.
It focuses on governments, leaders, VIP, councillors. Here journalism has one job! Be the eyes and ears of those who don’t know better or have less means, resources and know-how to show what’s truly going on.
- What’s the evidence for and against Vaccines?
- Is Brexit working or not?
- What’s the evidence for Climate Change?
Unearthing something that is news is one thing, transmitting that in a way that affects receivers is the craft skill. For that to happen means journalism sees its form of storytelling as dynamic. It’s like playing chess. If your opponent knows how to circumvent your moves to evade you, do you continue with your approach or find a new one? Journalism must change accordingly to report news and publish for impact. If it doesn’t it what’s the point?
But generally this isn’t happening at least in schools teaching journalism. That’s because of a default that supra news companies set the tone for their form and style of news production as definitive. You can spot it today in any form you’re studying, whether that’s print or video. Content matters, but style should ostensibly pay no part and conform to what’s come before.
This example shows how what’s reported, its style, and frequency was key in journalism impacting change against the status quo.
In the 1940s, Britain was being led by a national government to address the war with one of the country’s most popular leaders Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. The war had depleted resources. Austerity was the Conservative’s rallying cry. Those resources included paper, so newspapers had to on the one hand cut down on their print run, and new legislation soon to be introduced prohibited advertisers from determining how much and where their adverts were placed.
Previously advertisers were responsible for a substantive amount of revenue for newspapers. This provided them with enormous clout to influence a newspapers’ output through their investment. They were on the tear. Then something changed. The ruins and costs of the war with a crippling economy, and advertisers limited in major newspapers, helped turn a tide.
In 1942, within the national government a little known report the Beveridge report was published. It included progressive ideas about the creation of a new and thorough welfare state and National Health Service. This under-the-radar report was taken up by the most influential newspaper at the time, The Daily Mirror at a time when forces to influence any newspaper’s output was quelled.
“The volume of press support is so great that it seems to be assumed in the House that it will be politically impossible to drop the report”, noted Cecil King the owner of the Daily Mirror.
The Mirror, less than a decade earlier, was a Conservative leaning newspaper struggling to survive, but a change in ownership and an ideological shift turned its focus to the working class and soldiers. It worked. Daily sales reached 1.5 million in the 1940s. The Mirror did something else in style (the way you say it). Its stories were shorter, headlines more punchier and bold on , and it featured more illustrations.
These new ideas against the Conservative’s status quo and slogan “Vote National — Help him (Churchill) finish the job” found traction. Labour won in 1945 barely weeks after the war ended the term of a triumphalist popular Churchill believed to be invincible. Today the much-loved National Health Service (NHS) is that over riding legacy of one of Britain’s most ambitious social reforms.
With the war at an end and a cap on resources lifted, it wasn’t soon before social reform news lost its edge; normal service resumed and advertisers once again leveraged their influence.
Tell people something often and they’ll come to believe it. And this can be for the public good and masses as with The the Daily Mirror in the 1940s, or otherwise this same approach can be used to bend reality, defy rationalism as observed by Nobel psychologist Daniel Kahneman.
In 2012 the then UK’s Chancellor George Osbourne was arguing the merits of austerity and deep cuts to kick start the economy. Despite a wealth of economists and journalists knowing otherwise, newspapers and by now the majority of them in the UK were Conservative-supporting, continued to pump out the message austerity is good for you. It defied rational thinking.
It’s not just what you say but how you say it and how often, is the benchmark for political storytelling from governments that are regurgitated in the press.
From governments wily to how stories work, that means controlling the news by a constant carousel of events, which primes journalists to state: “the Prime Minister says…” in delivering news. This control of journalism is aided by a new philosophy in which truth doesn’t matter and that the constituents government need worry about is only the one that gets them into power.
Social Media too has proved how a new onslaught on accountability journalism works. The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) says that the majority of COVID-19 disinformation available on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter is the work of just 12 people.
Where does this one strand of journalism that is the eyes and ears of the citizens who know no better, and whose ideas are shaped by the psychology of mind waste? Accountability journalism exists, but is highly limited. It exists as in what is said, but often falls short of a radical style (similar to what the Mirror did in the 1940s) to explain a story.
Story forms thrive when there’s no competition mainly from peers. In universities in teaching journalism there’s relatively little in the delivery of language and the psychology that underpins storytelling against the dynamics of ‘this is how a report SHOULD be put together.
There should for instance, as part of any curriculum in journalism, be greater offerings in creative writing (style) and in television ( cinematography). There should be more emphasis on values, not just that of the publication, but what could amount to a sacred creed of journalism, as opposed to journalism-propaganda to do no harm.
Explain the WTF moment I say.
Those values include understanding that the storyteller plays an explicit part in story production. No this isn’t tautology, but another way of saying culture, diversity and background matters. The history and the values of a journalist is made out as “unnecessary”. Did it matter before? Yes, but relatively few suffered for it. Does it matter now? Absolutely !
The craft skill of the Masters of journalism in their age deserve to be studied, not to replicate as stereotypical means of reporting, but as archetypes to build on new ways of journalism storytelling that may resemble a by-gone era perhaps in form, but not so much in style. Style evolves.
In 2000, influenced by the work of Haskell Wexler, who used cinéma vérité-style documentary style for fictional films, Robert Drew the father of cinema journalism, and generally cinema as a story form e.g. Roma (2018), Minari (2020), I started to investigate a style of video and television journalism that used cinema to make its content more accessible, absorbing and memorable.
The evidence from a wide study is that it works and there are some figures who openly blend cinema and journalism. For younger audiences and I once used to work on the BBC’s hip show Reportage, whose journalism was a precursor, unwittingly for Vice.com, Hollywood style cinema-reporting is proving extremely popular.
My analysis shows a coterie of new talent creating social journalism in which often calling leaders to account is suspended. There can be reasons for this:
- Firstly, access to those in power may be limited.
- Secondly, the audience may feel this absence doesn’t weaken the report.
- Thirdly accountability comes with risks, particularly if you’re a solo outfit.
- Fourthly , getting advertisers on board as sponsors can be tricky.
The premise was simple. All other forms of storytelling e.g. literary, art or documentary, have modified or changed their styles for audiences. Holding people in position to account by unearthing a report is one thing. Ensuing audiences are fully immersed because of the cinemacity of journalism is another craft entirely. Doing that more often ensures your reporting will help make an impact. It might just swing the dial for leaders to act more judiciously.