A torch into the dark side of mainstream journalism

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“Seven minutes ago, a huge bomb detonated shaking my home 3 km away. It’s thought to be the work of the far right.”
— David Dunkley Gyimah reporting live on the BBC World Service, 1994. (see audio below)

It’s cyclical, perhaps like life — except its dark side is exacerbated by its arrogance, and persistent reluctance to truly seek to understand, or to advance critical knowledge.

It’s said amongst sociologist that the world is too important to be left to journalism. There’s more than the ring of truth about this as journalism’s frankenstein self reaches international hysteria.

Hence, it may be de rigueur now to speak of its failings, but frankly it’s been atrophying for years. Its flaws are built inside it. The best you can do is constantly supervise it. This, below in 1998, when the media mag, Broadcast, railed against its kind.

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1998, Broadcast Magazine

Christiane Amanpour at the Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Award, this week, asked what would Murrow do in these trying times? Yes! Edward R. Murrow, fearless, the very definition of integrity, would not have capitulated to the madness of Pre-News (news that says nothing) , but after too many critically acclaimed See it Nows that irked executives, it was his network CBS that walked him over the plank. Even the best pay a high price. This excerpt below comes from the fascinating book, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, by Bob Edwards.

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Then there’s the added problem isn’t there? We speak of journalism as if it’s a sentient and universally perfectly formed and uniform. This, unfortunately belies our own ignorance. There is no universal journalism. It has no absolute truth in line with the sciences and maths. It assumes a universal structural style, sure, but there is no arbitrating body designated to hold it all together. It is as variant as your grandmother’s recipe for apple pie. It explains why a trade magazine for model planes can confidently call its writings, ‘news’, as much as CNN does.

The 4th estate is an aspiration, not a given — not all journalism weighs against governments on behalf of the people. Journalism is not a preordained order. There are groups and individuals, some well meaning, others inescapably flawed when judged en mass. Journalism is a make shift tent, with a label that houses people invariably pulled from similar social classes who write and produce and possess their own agendas and egos.

And truthfully, whether you’re proficient in social, data or all things in structural journalism who you are, what you stand for, your phenomenological perceptions more adequately define how you approach and disseminate your understanding of the world. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not anti-journalism. In part I’m for framing what we mean when we lump journalism into one basket because as an invention, it has yielded artists, with names like: Murrow, Guerrin and Fisk.

Last week I attended the UK’s first data journalism gathering organised by uber data journalist Paul Bradshaw in which, not withstanding its brilliance, Data journalism was viewed as an additional tool/skill set.

This is rarely taught in J-schools, where we give precedent to the next tech, above a Kantian interrogation of our own consciousness as a fundamental axiom towards interpretation. It’s the reason why Fox News (its ideology) can lay a claim to its truthful impartial journalism, as much as ITN News. Tooling up is not what makes us better in the same way iconic photojournalist W. E. Smith acknowledged it wasn’t about the camera. It’s the quality of thought.

The most revered philosophers taught us this three, to four hundred years ago. Locke, Berkley, Hume and Kant explained how experience frames us, but that we also bring an internal thought process that validate these experiences. That internal matrix which synthesises and grows our conscious in all its guises e.g. moral, ethical and creative mind is as much welded by social development, family and community and external forces e.g. TV.

Hence, in the Milgram experiment (1963), ordinary people, in spite of their own social development and values against harming others, found themselves bringing pain to innocent participants with electric shocks. Thus explaining our predilection to the power of authority, and inherently how television’s powerful rhetoric excels in depth psychology. Say it again and again and people will just about do anything, Gustave Le Bon discovered this in his seminal text The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, published in 1895.

An equally stark realisation is how cultures (community) wire our consciousness and hence in this thing journalism lay fundamental apriori schisms in delivery and reception by different groups. Watch as this modern experiment demonstrates group behaviour passed on. The problem is that in different social communities we act accordingly to native cultural stimuli, which may NOT be universally known. As a journalist you probably don’t have time to drill into anthropology, or otherwise it just doesn’t matter.

In this experiment I conducted ten years ago with my MA student, Kofi (pictured), an International Chevening MA student, and a top student in Ghana, makes my earlier point as he wrestles with the absurdity of news and its social abrogation. In the West you’d have called him silly.

Similarly, the manner in which cultures respond to temporal events is so significantly different to one another as to immiserate journalism’s moorings as a universal offering.

The idea that if something is 24-hours old no longer qualifies as news gets to the heart of our variances in social behaviours. In the West we have an uneasy relationship with temporality. It’s a key social reason why our elderly and infirm are in homes, whilst in Africa and Asian cultures, the past is still part of the present — generations live in the same household. In hindu, Chinese and Ghanaian culture the continuum of all states, the past present and future is captured in the phenomenon, such as Everlasting Now, Sumi-e and Sankofa respectively.

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Sankofa translates as go and get it, which in symbolism it also requests you retrieve from the past. In Ghanaian tradition death is a celebration, in the West it’s mourned. These social variances, if not understood create systemic misinterpretations, for which journalism is not equipped to understand. Louisiana State University professor Nancy Isenberg wrote “White Trash,” which explained the growing dissent of communities in the US’ rust belt. It took seven years to research, hardly the stuff for journalism to wrap its resources and time around.

Populist journalism as we know it today attempts a quick fix, no different to cocaine for those gilded hell-bent-on-peddling-their-opinions whilst masquerading as a free press. One is illegal, the other is addictively necessary, framing and reshaping how you see the world and they all function via a profitable balance sheet.

April 1994, Johannesburg. It’s the eve of South Africa’s mother of all elections . A bomb has exploded in downtown Johannesburg (Cover photo above) on the eve of the election, shuddering the floors of my house 3 km away. Although Blacks outnumber whites by 7:1, white right-wingers threaten to derail the first democratic election wanting their (really!) country back.

My 18 months trying to understand this complex country is coming to an end. In that time, I’ve witnessed a good share of dangers and signed certificates that absolved the authorities of any culpability should the ultimate harm come my way, whilst in their company. To report South Africa meant to daily put yourself in harms way. You got up and headed to the next danger spots oblivious of the consequences. Here, when the bomb detonates, minutes later I’m ringing colleagues at the BBC World Service.

But even back then, I’m beginning to question the critical nature of this thing called journalism. I came here after unsuccessfully trying to find work in the UK. Yes, you could describe me as a failure, which is why I couldn’t gain employment, but I’d just completed working for BBC programmes, like Newsnight, Reportage and GLR.

I learned something. South Africa’s international coverage was less about informing audiences about understanding the complexity of this rainbow nation, because if that were the case, then the pool of subjects in the news agenda would be wider than the deck of cards on the table which often read ‘conflict’, ‘conflict’, ‘conflict’. And, people of diverse backgrounds and different talents would have been featured in front line reporting. I remember spending an eternity hawking myself unsuccessfully to British networks, before ABC News offered me a stable spot.

I learned something else. Yes the media acknowledged there was an election looming, but truthfully its real eye on its prize was an expectant bloody war. This election, like any other extraordinary commemorative event was not designed around knowledge that would help build understanding between people or to restitute memories for civic society, but something else. When President Mandela spoke at press conferences I attended, he would often remind the press of their responsibility.

Soon after this piece for the BBC World Service about Mandela’s inauguration (it features a take on Fidel Castro) the press upped sticks to Rwanda.

Rwanda’s grisly and barbarous events provided, and then Bosnian trailed its international television violence. And then the next one, and the next one, until such time that in varying degrees we in developed cities would be touched by our notions of societal breakdown; the London riots, and various conflicts in the US between the police and its citizens e.g. BlackLives and the Dakota protest.

Lest we forget, television news is a human construct. Its conception in Conway’s The Origins of Television News in America: The Visualizers of CBS,and a slew of books shows how originally radio personnel slowly cracked its formula. But the real eye opener comes when the suits take over the bulletins, forebodingly now re-engineering television’s information as a golden goose. In 1960 after much negotiations, television executives finally sell the idea of a gladiatorial encounter to politicians that will excite audiences. Thus the presidential election debate was born. Interestingly, an inexperienced sun-tanned television natural would undo the efforts of a seasoned political pro, who would contract flu during the campaign and looked drained. But any other comparisons between Kennedy with Trump, or Clinton with Nixon is theatre of the absurd. Rather eerily, Cuba was the back drop then, with the missile crisis, as it is today with its main architect’s passing.

Television news’ deity ensures everything we observe in its ether is to be believed. Karyn Riddle’s Always on my Mind, a study of how television helps people form social realities, is one of several studies that points to that. This is what the marketeers and political lobbyists uncovered — a direct route to you in your living room. What’s more, it is de facto a technological amygdala/ hippocampus which prosthetically stores and passes on skewed memories to its viewers.

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There’s little sense in attempting to debate ‘journalism’. Its many stakeholders prohibit any real change. Thus, you either find a new patch to plant various modes of journalism (in my case videojournalism) whilst, at te same time, making people aware of its warped semiotics.

That’s what a group of television news practitioners turned academics are increasingly engaging in, such as these old friends I met up with at Data Journalism in Birmingham.

Above are some of the UK’s most formidable thinkers in this space from left to right: David Hayward, formerly head of the BBC Journalism College, now at De Montford University leading Channel 4 News’ One year MA investigative course; Glyn Mottershead from Cardiff an expert in data; Andy Dickinson from UCLAN, a leading authority in hyperlocal community based journalism, and Martin Chorley, also based at Cardiff.

At our Digital Interactive Storytelling LAB, some of the ideas I’m floating with colleagues, are as follows:

  1. Stop calling outfits that make up stories as newspapers. Instead, start calling them, more appropriately, ‘story papers’. In time this may stick and those outfits will lose the currency that validates their narratives (wishful thinking).
  2. Make journalism outfits pledge themselves openly to Mencken’s principles about the afflicted, and to present identifiable social pledges to which they could be held account.
  3. Resist watching and reading outputs that persistently skew truths. If their audiences drop, so do their advertising. Otherwise lobby their advertisers.
  4. Lobby benefactors to create independent news networks, with a diverse board of advisors. Public networks each morning feature a number of national newspapers to inform viewings. Independent network could argue for parity.
  5. Make diversity (age, religion, sex, ethnicity) a prerequisite towards a representation of society. Of course privately owned newspapers will see no need to adhere to this, so go to(1)
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Dr David Dunkley Gyimah has been a journalist for more than 25 years working for some of the biggest brands in journalism e.g. Newsnight, Channel 4 News. He’s been an academic for 15 years and received his doctorate from UCD for uncovering a new form of journalism practised by international award winning videojournalist, that he called Artistic Videojournalism or Cinema Journalism. An Applied Chemistry grad, he lectures in an array of subjects from the philosophy of story telling, journalism, mark up language, and video story forms. He is the recipient of a number of international awards including the (US) Knight Batten for Innovation in Journalism. He currently leads the Digital Interactive Story LAB at the University of Westminster and is a juror for the Royal Television Society Awards. You can contact David ( ff @viewmagazine)at David@viewmagazine.tv or through his site www.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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