The Incredible Year of Storytelling

Simon Westgate photo

Flash, click,click, zip. Instagram — it all came together in this photo. Producers and execs whom occupy senior positions as managers at independents, the BBC. More of that in a moment.

I’m watching (2017) on a six-hour journey from London to Ghana. It resonates. It’s a documentary about how one of the most acclaimed storytellers of his time connects with audiences intimately, viscerally and emotionally. The cues are recurrent throughout his films.

In (1993), the director turned a corner with a quasi documentary-maker approach in style and method. Scenes and dialogue were devised on-the-fly. Spielberg was the proto videojournalist operating camera, whilst directing. Hang on! Videojournalist? What’s that?

When he instructs actor Liam Neeson how to hold a cigarette in a pivotal scene, the actor is more than a little disgruntled and complains to actor Ben Kingsley about having been made out to be a puppet. Yet the scene and its delivery, smoke swirling, pregnant stillness from Neeson’s character as he looks within himself is hauntingly expressionism personified.

Kingsley tells Neeson that every great conductor needs a soloist.

Then this. The director says he gets nervous starting a project, adding the anxiety results in him producing his best work. Spielberg, the story teller! Talking about his next film, 1971 public spat with President Richard Nixon’s Vietnam cover-up — he believes if he hadn’t make it as a director, he’d have become a journalist.

Fat chance! He’d either be frustrated as hell, or have revolutionised journalism for good. I’m not sure about the latter.

Cue the comparison. The storyteller versus journalist. It sounds a non sequitur. But this theme underscores an era, and a year of a giant elephant squeezing everyone in the room. This. Is.The. Age. Of. Storytelling. Yeaah!!

Look around you. In reality it always has been , but buttressed against its sibling construct that is journalism, this year and a creeping number of years journalism has finally and inexorably been losing the plot, if it ever used one.

Storytelling became the de facto medium of communicating events that once journalism could lay claim to expressing. You can’t blame journalism, though it’s not without fault. The men, and it was largely men, who devised the tools and methods for journalism did so to combat a terrible ill that society didn’t know it had.

In critical moments in the 1700 as philosophers e.g. Descarte wrestled truth from religion which was then storytelling par excellence, evidence and fact became the foundation to rationalise with an audience. Willem Dafoe who would write the fictional exemplar , separated fact from fiction in his first pursuit journalism by taking eye witness statements, and collaborating details at public executions.

In the 1900s at the birth of English tabloids, the Daily Mail 1896, Daily Mirror 1903, and Daily Express 1900, stories that often bent the truth of journalism were told to suit proprietor’s interest. Their existence, when you read history, was about the gentry muzzling the views of the working class, as I have written here. Today’s Brexit reportage is a legacy of this. Papers claiming to tell news i.e. newspapers are organs of opinion, rather than an exercise of populist evidence-based, impartial(?) balanced (?)journalism.

Think what could happen if the masses acting as a cooperative were to publish their daily paper, so it too could enjoy airtime on BBC in the segment,

In the 1940s television, a brilliant exculpate of facts, gave birth to television journalism. What you see is what actually happened. However, its schema quickly ran into problems practitioners of journalism either turned a blind eye to or devised erroneous mechanism’s that have now become so natural we rarely question.

For instance the idea that someone says something and we ask them to repeat this staged with a power drop background reinforces their own spin on events. You only have to look at political rallies like Trumps where placards are designed for the viewers and television worrisomely beautifies its shots.

Television inherited the force of power, and with its presence in the living room, exacted its message on a captive audience. However, so long as the news makers came from a broad church, and weren’t enslaved to chasing money, journalism in its closest imagined form could reign. Journalism after all has never been an exact science. But journalism became the cash cow — a commodity traded on wants and needs at a premium.

The world has embraced journalism as de facto religion, which is now integral to how our lives are shaped and people are informed. In the digital age journalism has faced the ultimate challenge to which it has little, if no answer. Yes it can deal with the explicit; journalists still win awards for their outstanding journalism, but the world has become a miasma of storytelling.

And if you’re wondering. Story telling has a millennia years on journalism.

Fox News tells stories unencumbered by any rationalisation of impartially rules — US regulators did away with impartiality rules decades ago. What you get is an unalloyed view, storytelling of a subjective world. Trump and his admin are the wizards of storytelling with no regard for evidence or truth. They’re not alone, institutions and people at the other end of the spectrum tell their stories, wanting to see what they want to see, reinvigorated by algorithms in Facebook et al. Today you really can say the Earth is flat and create a following.

Writing in Esquire Jack Holmes says the following.

When you pit stories against the way journalism is taught. Stories win, because as Spielberg knows “it connects with audiences intimately, viscerally and emotionally”. It’s not bound by the structural and often antiquated elements of television’s construct. In TV, breaking the forth wall reveals how TV’s realism, as a facade, is maintained. There is no plot to best tell a story. Traditional journalism attempts to tell you in J-school that emotions don’t matter. Gibberish!

So where does that leave us in 2018?

Firstly, after thirty years of journalism, coupled with a PhD study and a couple of awards, I reckoned upon a new discipline for the 21st century. Stories are inherently subjective, but you can strive to get to how events happened.

In 2015, I called it — an offshoot of videojournalism, a person with a movie camera capturing stories as news that offer some resistance to the abject assimilation and production of stories. Storytelling, and that absolutely includes news is about YOUR take on culture, and upbringing, as much as it is how you knit words and images together.

disLAB students learn first hand from one of London’s leading agencies

Secondly, at my university we launched a new course that gives modern journalists and storytellers the tools and knowledge to navigate the sea of stories coming their way. Instead of just teaching cohorts journalism, and we run one of the most intense bootcamps students you’ll come across, we teach them an array of different styles across behaviours and emotions, from PR news to how cinema makers like Spielberg could work a film towards Ethical Storytelling. Ethical Storytelling becomes the new journalism and some.

Thirdly, our ability to tell stories, diverse stories to correct myths, should be the stuff of 2018. We believe we got close in December 2017. To that photo at the top then. The story is there aren’t enough quality filmmakers, producer/ directors in the UK from ethnic backgrounds, and why should there be, you might ask.

That black people have been in the UK since the 1600s and have contributed to the UK in many ways, including world wars makes them as equal to opportunities as anyone else, but that’s not always the case. If you rely on present mainstream journalism you’d be hard pressed to understand how individuals, despite paltry numbers, have contributed to British TV.

Co-Producer Simone Pennant and I, backed by a small incredible team of Photographers David Freeman, Gerald McLean, and Designer Wayne McLean told a story that addresses this. Exhibited in a gallery, a cinema room, a book, and soon to be digital manifestation, the story of the Leaders’ List is a story of achievements and renewed focus for the knowledge and balance it brings to storytelling. It may also be a platform to launch other ideas, as one commentator asked on Broadcast.

Their story is the change we seek. It is a broader narrative distinguishable from journalism. It is that which connects to you emotionally, or intends to.It is this, understanding story in its widest form, that will help us recover some sanity from this thing we call journalism.

Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is this year’s Asper Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia



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Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah

Creative Technologist & Associate Professor. International Award Winner Cinema journalist. Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled Top Writer,