Can storytelling change attitudes and influence beliefs? It’s a rhetorical question. Think way back to the BBC’s Michael Buerk’s piece on the Ethiopia famine, or An Inconvenient Truth and its climate wakeup call, or more recently Ava Duvernay’s When they See Us.
If you accept it can, then there’s a deficit in journalism video storytelling that requires attention. Last week in Britain the script was there in plain sight. It’ll now be left to the work of Hugo Blick, Lynne Ramsay, or Steve McQueen to artistically show the entrails.
Britain spoke. Perhaps, nothing was going to shift attitudes against the entrenched inertia the electorate had developed against those seeking office. But that misses the point, what and where is the Inconvenient Truth?
What is it behind fictional and documentary makers that can leave journalism found wanting? Caution, you don’t fall the trope, one is a fictional or a creative assembly of material while the other is about fact. There is an immersive quality, a memorability, that can be attained from assembling events just as much as fiction, adumbrated by the Fact is often stranger than fiction, meme.
From the other side of the ridge, journalism’s adversaries in storytelling, advertising and political spin, are doing nicely thank you. Just how do you fix media’s broken arrow?
You’re either comfortable with the status quo, the idea that “we’ve always done it that way” or you’re not. If you are consider this:
Whilst all other forms, such as literature, cinema, photography, and art absorb and update to meet cultural, political and sociological changes, journalism generally remains steadfastly resolute in its rules at ground zero. It was perfect in 1948 and in its form it’s perfect now.
Except it isn’t. This tweet today.
If democracy, says former White House speechwriter David Frum, is a work in progress, then dito, so is journalism. Take for example the core of journalism — interview skills.
In policing, ten years ago, David Chenery-Wickens was jailed for murdering his wife. His case and a combination of PACE laws would lead to a fundamental reform of police interviewing skills. In law, the introduction of new legal framework meant a client’s bad character, normally kept away from a jury for fear of prejudices an outcome, could now so easily be introduced into a trial, by triggering one of seven ways. An experienced solicitor , required retraining in interviewing skills to avoid damaging their client.
In journalism, we’re interviewing like it’s 1999. Few experienced journalist see any reason to upgrade their interviewing skills, even in the face of new psychological warfare.
“Maybe the lesson is sometimes it takes a crisis to make real” change says Baroness Hayer, a former magistrate, in BBC’s Catching Britain’s Killers: the crimes that changed us.
There is a crisis
History has shown how storytelling gets creative when adverse political systems and oligarchs are in play, otherwise we’re wedded to a story style of permanence.
In the 1920s, 50s and 60s, communism, fascism and wars provided a need for innovation. In the arts, you’d locate cubism (Picasso’s Guernica), Performance Art; in cinema, noir and French new wave, and in journalism its most coruscating style, gonzo, alongside its most exciting film form Cinéma vérité. The latter were largely journalism’s most creative flutters in that period.
Unusually they were prime examples of co-options for reform. That is their new style and creativity were co-opted from other forms in literature and cinema which had systematically undergone paroxysms of creativity.
Between the 70s and 90s, largely creative storytelling styles in journalism were comatosed. In documentary, it would take one outsider, Michael Moore, who produced a media frenzy at Cannes to resuscitate documentary by co-opting western cinema forms in Roger and Me.
In news and reality tv, the videojournalists whose antecedent lay in Cinéma vérité also found a world stage. They would blur productions roles and filmic styles says one of their pioneers, now one of the UK’s most dynamic producers, Dimitri Doganis, behind the BAFTA winning Imposter.
Creative storytelling as a formal offering has generally been in stasis. News journalism is generally reactive, rather than pro active, but that’s been changing with surges in populism and instability, tech flourishes supported by social needs, and media oligarchs attempting to maintain tradition. One of the most striking creative storytellers in journalism at the moment are a group who are not journalists, @LedbyDonkeys.
Along those lines, what is required in the 21st century creative storytelling and equally pressing why bother, what’s the point?
Doganis says the sheer volume of videos and stories online and on television is a challenge for audiences’s attention, so producers must look for ways to be distinctive, stand out from everyone and create a brand persona for being inventive and innovative. And then this last month at Edinburgh’s Beyond — a conference for creatives and academics. Karen Palmer, a creative storyteller receiving plaudits from panelists. “You’ve done what would have taken me a number of lectures”, says Professor Michael Rovatsos whilst going on to praise what creative storytellers do.
Creative storytelling relies on how to co-create with other forms, collaborate in an experimental creative organic lab environment, and possessing the boldness to make leaps of faith. And one last ingredient which has largely been missing, an understanding on the effect of cultural variables. It’s output from various experiments examines, amongst others, how to create deeply memorable stories, as well as challenge the new spin doctors, whom understand the psychology of a story far more than journalists.
In the story that follows and next few slides, I’ll map out what we’ve been doing at the University of Cardiff with our Emerging Journalism and Storytelling in creating a new generation of artists-journalists.
It’s in the industry generally, and universities in particular where change can be affected. I know this well enough. In 2005, I started teaching coding skills to journalism students alongside cognitive web skills.
On a lecture tour in China Chongqing University, India and Egypt, I was struck by this idea. What if you mixed the region’s rich storytelling philosophy e.g. cinema with journalism? From Hong Kong, I’m a big fan of Wong Kar-wai whose films and deeply saturated tones have a dream-like affect on movie goers, whilst Youssef Chahine’s social realism in Cairo Story is a must see. And growing up in Ghana I grew up on Bollywood films e.g. Sholay.
Some years earlier, I was the recipient of an international award in videojournalist featuring the first UK newspaper journalists I trained to make video. The style of the video was aggressive and “Bourne-like’. Different styles and thus receptions. When the Economist interviewed me about the concept of video hyperlinking — how films would seamlessly jump narratives cued by user behaviour — I had these movies in mind.
In the burgeoning online world, following an interview with a former head of the CIA, I questioned how might I present the themes and drama of the content. A rubik cube encoded video into bite size chunks in an application called Flash. You played with the cube to reveal the story. That and other forms like the global vlog below would earn me one of the US’s most coveted awards for Innovation in Journalism, the Knight Batten, beating many international media. The Guardian Newspaper would win the same award some years later.
This was the proof of concept and catalyst for leading a team in developing a digital story lab. Employers were telling us and the market that the four main qualities they looked for in recruits were creativity, problem solving, collaboration and presenting skills.
This chimed with our aspirations. The prototype course created over a year and then subsequently launched gave students the tools to test these skills. The image below is a former student Nasma presenting to a group of mentor/judges from the Guild of Entrepreneurs.
The idea for the new programme, redeveloped from the prototype introduces cohorts to different story forms, citing exemplars, but keeping the knowledge lean. You only know enough to want more, rather than the waterfall approach to teaching. Innovation requires being privy to new experiences, otherwise you’re relying solely on instinct. Steve Jobs visited museums frequently for inspiration.
We present the following as foundational. Major shifts, initiated years ago in media, have now, finally in an epic fashion come to bear. Firstly, television’s pioneers repurposed show business and cinema’s language for the intimacy of the home screen creating a new uncontestable constructed deity — television news. It is a construct.
Secondly, the impact of television on newspapers was so disruptive to newspaper profits, they reinvented themselves. Commentary, opinion and a naked political slant to events could easily have merited the label “Commentarypapers” or Opnionpapers”, but the barons were able to retain the moniker “news”.
AI presents an interesting challenge. Since data imputed in machine learning represents data out, there’s a ton of work to be done here in inclusivity. Google’s AI project with newsrooms deserves praise, but also a deep sense of foreboding. AI needs to reflect the world as it should, rather than as experts currently believe.
Today, Prof Noel Sharkey from Sheffield University robotics has deep concerns in some machine-learning systems exhibiting racial bias and has requested such facial recognition systems be scrapped. In journalism, we can observe practitioners storing up future problems.
Our cohorts develop their big idea. In fact they develop a number in which some lead and others rally behind. The way ideas work, written by Steve Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From shows how we incubate idea sand infect one another. The upshot, it’s a bad idea to have just one idea.
The story is a treated as product which is solving a problem. It could be a tech solution or one such as how to combat lying politicians. The iteration computational thinking to forecast the product. Like any product the story goes through a design thinking flow, working on its reception to its audience and how via a creative treatment (often used by advertising companies) it can be presented to a critical audience. This approach lays down the tracks for others to follow.
A key part of the narrative arc of the workflow journey is understanding the problem and being receptive to solutions across disciplines. This, we’ve discovered requires specialist knowledge.
More recently solution journalism has adopted this method of seeing a story through stages that extend beyond its traditional life cycle, as journalists cover a new story.
User personas, understanding audiences is less about examining demographics, but comprehending deeper values and a long view about gaining traction. Remember, Buzzfeed’s articles align with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In this case, we examine the OCEAN model for values and behaviour. Is it time journalism looked deeper into the psyche of its potential customers.
As an all rounder, being creative, a problem solver, and collaborator, now it’s time to learn the crafts of presenting, and how to create memory implants for the audience. If you’re using a presenters’ deck, how are your slides arranged and why?
Future labers need to engage with the public a lot more to signal how their work influences and drives ideas.
The journey flow, includes knowledge and specialist mentoring with an entrepreneur, who’s experienced the highs and lows of a business. We’re extremely grateful to the Guild of Entrepreneurs for their mentoring. and we’re looking forward to working too with one of Wales’ top tech hubs.
As a way to understand value, we ensure our mentees reciprocate a production gift to their mentor. Bowen took still portraits of her mentor Lee Robertson, an award-winning wealth manager and CEO and founder Octo Members Group. We’re extremely grateful to Lee and look forward to working
That’s it for the meantime. We’re doing some updates across engineering collaborations. In part II I’ll post feedback from cohorts.