American comedian and chat show host Bill Maher delivered an excoriating sequence of punches to mainstream network journalism on his show. When television news was created, he told his audience, it was meant to be a public service — the bottom line wasn’t part of the strategy.
“The news media lost trust because they became eye-ball chasing, clickbait whores who bumped the story about climate change for the one about grizzly bears in jacuzzis,” he added.
It was time, he said, for the industry to “take one for the team” and drop the unicorns and fluffy animals stories.
Elsewhere, journalism is under attack — a deliberate attempt by the new US administration to, bit by bit, corrode its reputation and semiotically reposition it as “fake” and dishonest, says American video journalism pioneer Michael Rosenblum.
To follow the BBC’s Adam Curtis video is to be intrigued by how this is happening.
In the UK, the news journalism industry (and I’m aware it’s such a broad canvas) hasn’t been without its own problems. That “B” word. Otherwise you can trace incidents like this captured in Broadcast magazine’s headline in November 1998, Bulletin Bored, stating:
“Television news is in crisis. Ratings have fallen (in the UK they’ve been falling since 1994) and new competition is threatening to change the flagship bulletins forever. Can programme-makers respond to the challenges of digital and the Internet or is the genre in terminal decline?” asked John Plunkett.
Since then there have been countless internal reviews, relaunches, modifications and overhauls. Television news is, not unlike the analogy Rusbridger painted of newspapers, a snapshot of the world, imperfect. The running orders have an impossible task, even in the 24-news hour cycle, whose initial presence it was believed would go some way to resolve this problem.
Mainstream news — now there’s an oxymoron — however would prefer not to admit its Achilles’ heel. Oxymoron because in spite of our inherent way of telling stories culturally, television news, like Hollywood assumed a super structure approach to inform people around the world.
Its form it deemed incontestable, as if ‘truth’ through a 70-year old camera lens and reporter can only be achieved in one way. Seventy years is approximately how old television news is in the two territories generally associated with its beginning; the US in CBS and NBC News and the BBC/ITV in the UK. Television news has achieved a triple whammy.
Once devised under the most testing of conditions; for example reports had to be two minutes because execs feared no on would watch it, it taught us viewers how to decode news. Execs now had an export they could make money from travelling the world setting up newsrooms, bagging consultant fees on how the news should look and feel and more importantly, they had direct line of sight in their scope to talk to people directly in their homes. Edward Bernays — the father of PR and his cohorts could not believe their luck.
Mainstream television looks on, sometimes enviably, at what other independents such as Vice are doing. It finds itself in a ‘damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t’. Too much gloom and they’re the harbingers of the apocalypse.
These unpredictable times though have offered it a schema to regroup, rally together — as we’ve seen happening — and examine itself. One would hope it would also take a moment to address some of the testy issues that often draw shrugged shoulders and resignations.
Ten years ago as featured in Journalism.co.uk, I was fortunate to be part of a loose movement of independents innovating within multimedia and digital. I won a US Knight Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism for work that the judges said ‘foreshadowed the future’, followed by an international award for video journalism in Berlin, documenting the UK’s first regional newspaper journalists I had trained to become video journalists on the Press Association’s scheme. Truth? I had ten years already to reflect from multimedia and videojournalim in 1994 with Channel One TV — the UK’s first station driven by multimedia and video journalism.
Both awards, by jurors comprising academics and journalists, acknowledged the diversity of stories, from a diversity of people i.e. BAME, wrapped around emerging technologies. Since then, journalism has been met with one brilliant technology after another, bringing new ways of reportage and dissemination across platforms. But there’s also traces of foreboding.
Techno-fetishism, which my colleague mooted in 1995 as invading the industry via cable and a nascent net (see here), has taken hold aggressively, whilst also subtly drilling into journalism’s core. This isn’t about anti-technology anymore than the death of craft skills, but as addressed in Carolyn Marvin’s brilliant ‘When old technologies were new’, sometimes it’s commercialism that is the driver for building enterprises around tech. No sooner does the mobile phone emerge than a veritable confluence of third-party rigs and accessories launch.
Mobile has played an important part in journalism as a platform, capture and viewing device. You’ve no doubt seen the picture of the mobile phone ‘frankensteined’ out of its case to look bigger and more menacing than a shoulder-mount camera. Er, buy a bigger camera then? With 3D, the industry and consumers weren’t buying it. Now it’s VR’s turn for the big push. We await what happens.
No, the issue isn’t tech, but whether attention should be turned to examining areas closer to home at conferences. We can explore the stars, but the oceans have secrets we still just don’t know about.
I have been a storyteller in journalism and long form approaching thirty years, working across radio, television, and print and in that time, I’ve had the opportunity to present or teach in the US, Russia, Cairo, China; at events like SXSW, along the Syrian border with talented Syrian filmmakers and the National Press club in DC where I spoke about a nascent multimedia a decade ago. I’m not famous and like so many other journos, perhaps have to uncouthly scream to make a point.
The technology is assistive, and often pushes the frontiers, but it’s as if the one technology we should be paying attention to is continually alluding our attention — how we think. One of my most treasured phrases from the man who brought us the medium and the message aphorism is this.
McLuhan doubts it. Hence chasing squirrels, dead cats, and depth manipulators, as framed by Vance Packard’s classic ‘The hidden persuaders’, is giving journalism the run around. Sir Lynton Crosby devises a distraction, a dead cat, journalism appears moribund at holding its ground. If PR can dream up ever more fanciful campaigns based on their understanding of human psychology and behaviour, could journalism up its game by learning more about its adversaries, and how it could be more independent? Could it say ‘no! That’s a dead cat’?
The impact is circular. What the industry wants is what graduates must acquire, which is what higher education must provide. How then can we capture the essence of 2005, not as recidivists but in innovating anew? Aleszu Bajak has written about how newsrooms are now investing in news labs. The New York Times, BBC, BuzzFeed are but a few which compliment a penchant for hackathons that bring like-minded people together. McLuhan would advocate understanding art — the one subject whose relevancy to luddites appears useless and inconsequential.
It’s something that higher education could look at too: equipping students with new knowledge, art and tech skills to impress future employers, to work in roles that, like in 2005, had yet to be created. The lab is one such approach. In the 1970s universities in the West went bat crazy crystalising modular learning. Film critiquing was owned by literature departments. We ploughed farther into distinctions between arts, humanities and science. One thing could not, for fear of contamination, touch the other.
The issue with labs according to the editor of BBC News Labs Robert McKenzie is that while the lab is about a team pushing new ideas by experimenting, it’s important to note that experiments don’t always work so well, or not at all. Furthermore, the Lab isn’t part of the mainstream news operation, but something unique, dedicated and separate.
The excitement and freedom of lab methodology requires a different approach to learning and testing success within the higher education modular regime. Iterating through failure and showing endeavour could also find a place to be appreciated. It’s where you discover not why something like the rule of thirds is a given, but prove its worth today in filmmaking, or that truth has been a contested issue within philosophy since dot.
An expanding approach and strategies to fuse different subjects is an important if not underrated part of millennial learning, says John Elmes of the Times Higher Education. When Jeff Jarvis from CUNY talks about facilitating their social media journalists to report within communities, at heart it’s about journalists engaging with diverse groups and people.
Journalism or storytelling at large is an expression of self — a Descartian quality. Who are you? What do you stand for? Journalism fusing with issues of diversity, storytelling fusing with memory studies, journalism and D3. At my university we’re fusing three large practices: visual journalism and data, with cinema journalism and interactive narrative.
And in a lab-like ethos, in line with that feeling of 2005, we see experience, our doctorate research enabling critical thinking of anything new, and expertise as key contributors to what could be the next ten years heralding multi-platform and digitally reformed journalism and storytelling.
This article was first published on journalism.co.uk and has been modified.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah leads the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster. He’s the recipient of awards for his teaching from the University of Westminster NUS and several International awards for his work. He is also an artist in residence at the Southbank, a former director of the Broadcast Journalism Training Council and sits on the RTS Television News Awards jury panel. You can find out more at www.viewmagazine.tv and on his Medium blog. He is interested in collaborations and working with next generations and can be reached at D.firstname.lastname@example.org.