The Art of the News

Ending the same old stories

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Former BBC and Channel 4 Producer David speaking at SXSW about cinema journalism and alternative narratives which was the foundation of his PhD

People never tell you how expensive news is to produce. Harder still when you don’t have newspapers, planning or a pool of talent to source from.

Internet mega star Casey Neistat, famed for snow boarding down mid Manhattan whilst being towed by a 4X4 in blizzard conditions, is to launch a news programme courtesy of CNN.

If anyone has the credentials to make a success turning events into news, then you kinda think it’s Caisey. Kinda, because Caisey’s a deft hand at creating compelling content, but this thing called news, what ever it is, is unforgiven.

The Net’s corridors are full of code remnants of former news aspirants. Remember Rocketboom, F1, Heavy.com, Yahoo’s, Current TV and Channel One. Vice, who made the industry sit up and take notice is laying off staff and print and mainstream until Trumpism reared its head the NYT and CNN were still theorising about their future existence. What happens when Trump goes after a full term or whatever, what then?

Caisey’s video racked up 16.5 million views. Others have netted 24M. What can we expect? Caisey’s signature jump cut kinetic style and epic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) oeuvre subverts traditional general media rules. Kansas, this is going to be interesting, but not like you think!

Often predictable, relentless, driven by the same agendas, and executed by practitioners from similar schools of training, ever since news e.g. NBC, ITV developed its package story form in the 1960, executives revelled in its mono-myth and form.

It was in 1987 that I walked into a radio station as an undergraduate wanting to discard a degree in maths and chemistry for storytelling, before going on to work for award winning outfits like Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight and ABC. Storytelling was about the performance of public oratory — a synthesis of selflessness and curiosity. I had those.

News, I came to understand through practice and pedagogy is a brilliant piece of story form engineering, first given the name visual reporting (plus ca change) and developed by trial and error over years. It’s driven by newspapers (dwindling in numbers) who can afford boots on the ground, forward planning desks and briefings so you can plan your shoots. If you work in the UK it’s the Press Association, in US nationals it’s the Politico Playbook.

Imposed on main broadcasters in the US by the Federal Communications Commission, and in the UK from recommendations of various committees like Ullswater and Beveridge, in 50s/60s political economy there were many reasons for it to fail.

Some execs just ideologically plainly loathed it whilst commercial stations viewed it as a pain in the wallet to finance. A legacy that continues even in the Net age. Yet its beauty, its PR win was how it educated viewers to recognise what was news, how it looked and sounded. Newsreels had all but lost their credibility.

Today, you have as much cognitive awareness about what you perceive is news as you believe a professional news exec possesses, but where did you learn that from? This news was chasing the dragon stuff. The television set (the syringe) had capitalists dealers rubbing their hands in glee. The salesman was now in your living room. No need to cold call. Sociologists even coined a word, the hypodermic syringe model in which media, television, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy would rap was the drug of the nation.

Across the world, its form, construct and million dollar studios being built exemplified from China through Cairo to Chicago how news’s form became as standardised as the English language’s alphabet.

Paradoxically, both competitors and shared interest cartel, mainstream media news monitor each other for their own relevance and one-upmanship. While their suppliers, agencies, feed news outlets the same footage shot in a zero-style to enable wide sales.

News, a costly product to produce, is a multi-billion dollar industry, comprises men in suits selling us their version and import of reality. This week ConservativeHome publisher Tim Montgomerie writing in the Evening Standard launched a new news service. His argument appears well meaning: “The stories that matter get lost in this frenzy of 24-hour news”. The intent looks laudable, though what Montgomerie means by ‘stories that matter’ requires unpicking. For whom? He writes:

When journalism is completely absent we end up with more tragedies like Grenfell Tower….While, for example, Trump is tweeting about the media and the media is tweeting about him, China is organising its $900 billion One Belt… [And] On one particular day the news network CNN devoted 92 per cent of programming to the nation’s entertainer-in-chief.

His new start up is being funded for four years by Paul Marshall of Marshall Wace — one of Europe’s largest hedge fund groups. What can we expect away from his critique? Reportage into the moral outrage that exists but has not been captured about the lack of people of diverse BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds in positions of power e.g. the BBC, whilst quite rightly the spotlight has fallen on the BBC’s pay deferential between men and women. The under hand way at which former culture minister John Whittingdale has set about dismantling the BBC writes Professor Steven Barnett, or the many untold conflicts, famines and crimes and famines we ignore in favour of pop idol paraphernalia.

A reality we consistently ignore, plaintively evident today is there is no such thing as news. It’s a construct, a great piddling marketing construct which the likes of psychologists Ernest Dichter exploited, updated to today Buzzfeed craftily slipping into unblurring the lines of marketing copy vs impartial and objective write-ups.

As a construct it has created a series of frameworks that its audiences and practitioners must adhered to, and dependent on the persuasive powers of whom ever has deep pockets, typically men e.g. Murdock, they can decide what should be called news. Et voila Fox News, the Sun... To your sensibilities, some items seem a cast iron bet, but as I wrote in a recent post how the Daily Mirror was birthed, news was as much about class wars and giving the then government free reign.

At best news is plain old storytelling labelled with a fanciful tag. Here’s what esteemed cinema scholar David Bordwell writes about Hollywood’s (the Wests) dominant cinema style:

  • [Its] rules that set stringent limits on individual innovation.
  • the production of a realistic, comprehensible, and unambiguous story.
  • the use of artifices through techniques of continuity and invisible storytelling.
  • and fundamental emotional appeal that transcends class and nation.

The mega model that execs arrived upon in the 1950s was derived largely from newspaper and radio execs mode of news making and even though execs eschewed cinema, therein lay its roots. News was a creative breakthrough, for what it was worth with its reductionism of the general 30 min documentary form epitomised in Murrow’s Harvest of Shame(1960) down to two minutes, but erroneously it was not the sole model for arriving at the truth.

Painters, architects and scientists from the renaissance to the industrial era would uncover how their versions of truth narratives could be superseded by the next generation — from Gothic, Baroque to Contemporary architecture today, classic art to impressionism and newtonian physics to quantum states. One moment light is a wave, then next it’s a particle, or both during measurements. Even science has a subjective bent.

What we’ve become used to calling news is a particular form of Western structuralism. Diminishing figures for news isn’t a symptom of TV news’ failings as a form, it’s that we’re in a fresh era of inquisitiveness. It’ll command an audience by dint of its presence, but like knowledge over the years and forms they undergo some form of transformation or atrophy, so whilst Hollywood’s/ news’ model for the hero’s story still commands audiences, digitally literate audiences know it’s not the only route towards verisimilitude.

Fragments of events, complex discussions are pieced together to deliver explicitly resolved narratives. Television news has taught us how to simplify events. Take the Heider-Simmel experiment. What do think’s happening?

In real life complex matters are rarely easily resolved as I demoed speaking to the BFI. A blogger wrote:

David then decided to throw another curveball at us, by adding sound to the mix. He played the Benny Hill theme over it, and it instantly turned into a comedic sketch that had the entire room in hysterics. This demonstrates that sound is a very important component that can dictate the tone of a piece substantially.

Your making sense of this is derived from your background and interpretations of visual schema. If you’re all from the same place and space, you’ll get it. The downside is your views will never be challenged to see other realities.

Outside of the West’s hegemonic form, in France, China and Russia lay different approaches to filmic sense making. Take Russia, for instance, filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a canvas for complex matters not easily resolved. It’s a mind ****, but once you watch it, it hauntingly stays with you. In France, film as Godard, Truffaut etc., would describe was philosophy at play. If Tarkovsky made news; his fellow Russian Dziga Vertov did, film would be an excursion into human’s souls clawing out the hidden.

Similarly Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave features a plenitude of styles that ironically, cyclically, frame modern factual filmmaking e.g. news. Classical news producers find this problematic. Not to worry. Pre-digital we were guided by those based on the conventional codes of television: don’t cross the line, match eye levels and so on. That’s slowly and inexorably changing.

Every attempt to break through the normalised reception of news story form has has been thwarted by traditional news organisations. In the 1960s Robert Drew and Associates tried and did not succeed in stripping the mono-myth. In the 1990s pioneering outfit Channel One TV and its videojournalists tried.

Labelled the ‘Thirty’, this short film I made attempts to explain their vision. They attempted to subvert all the four rules of Hollywood in normative news making. When the BBC took over videojournalism, it remodelled it into the status quo.

But there is a way. Different eras call on different behaviours to navigate societies. In a digital age of the implicit, immersive, depth intimacy and personalisation. Tarkovsky’s Solaris has a heir whose storytelling, equivalence for news, is described as “Virtual reality without the headset”. Chris Nolan is finding a way of drilling into our amygdala and memories in, say, Dunkirk that taps into emotive visceral storytelling forms. Art, un-linearity, sensoriums, memories and cultural mining within social sets are the frontiers to explore now.

Peter Lee Wright’s popular Documentary Handbook provides an account of my thinking under the section ‘Flying Solo’ page 43, whilst film scholar Mark Cousins gives an interesting assessment when I interview him. And this blurring of emotions and creativity in cinema hasn’t bothered audiences I have encountered and shown as SXSW.

If we want to break the same old stories, it’ll require not thinking of the medium as we’ve been taught to perceive but an artistry, a creativity in using the medium for problem-solving, the implicit and varying narratives.

It may have no resonance for the current over 40s generation who are used to CNN and BBC News agendas, but to keep the cash coming in, news outlets have to appeal to the next generation of youngsters whom perennially are notoriously difficult to pin down. Vice, AJ+ and Buzzfeed have illustrated there is a way and the patterning of their storytelling reveals something.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah leads the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster. He publishes viewmagazine.tv

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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