Uncertainty odds — Pick One.

The inevitability of getting it wrong, before you get it right.

Image for post
Image for post
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah’s LAB

Shiny objects attract inquisitive minds. It’s a trait we acquire very young browsing the multi-coloured sweets on the corner store. Soon we will seek to replace the sheen of technology with the allure of success.

Kings and Pharaohs manifested this behaviour 5000 years ago drawn to Gold whose symbol Au derives from the Latin word “aurum,” — shining dawn.

In conflict zone reportage, you can always spot the aspirant storyteller. Crisply pressed safari jacket, minted DSLR slung around the shoulder and glacial mobile phones to hand, that pulitzer is but a shutter-speed distance away.

On London’s tube network, a series of six by three metre posters display the latest mobile phone imagery. About the only person with any doubt of the fecundity with this new shiny is perhaps your 84-year-old grandfather who still swears by his Leica IIIf. For you the joys of being the world’s best photographer beckons. It’s an image whose emotional attachment is difficult to shift.

But disappointingly, more often what materialises is an illusion of success. This shiny object syndrome is compounded by a further fallibility — the heuristics of uncertainty that yield traits about ourselves and our vulnerability.

In the 1990s, the loss of life across a series of Asian air disasters would be traced to a maligned culture in the flight cockpit. Deference to the senior pilot back then meant he (they were men) could rarely be questioned — even when a co-pilot sensed something was going terribly wrong.

The medical profession has been in a similar bind. The omnipotence of senior registrars and surgeons meant diagnosis were infrequently challenged. Presumed identification of rare illnesses, rather than being shared with specialist hospitals, would often be retained by a small number of staff to gilder their research.

In the Undoing Project, author Mike Lewis writes about clinical misjudgements through the eyes of trauma specialist Don Redelmeier who says:

Doctors tend to see only what they were trained to see: that was another big reason bad things might happen to a patient inside a hospital

Lewis continues,

There was a generalised mood of arrogance said Redelmeier. What do you mean give steroids? To Redelmeier the very idea that there was a great deal of uncertainty in medicine went largely acknowledge by its authorities. There was a reason for this. To acknowledge uncertainty is to admit the possibility of error. The entire profession had arranged itself as if to confirm the wisdom of its decisions.

The problem in not immune to journalism, where training can often amount to a series of structured skills and knowledge modules. Often too skill sets coalesce around the workings of shiny objects in VR, 3D, mobile, and data buttressed by neighbouring sociologies e.g. the medium changes the message.

Masking the profession is its own fallibility as witnessed cataclysmically in Brexit and the US elections — its the heuristics of uncertainty. Note for instance, how a number of journalism platforms didn’t see the results coming, because of a lack of understanding on the ground, Today, those who were ignored, continued to be ignored. To admit to this is, like the medical profession, to ‘admit the possibility of error’.

Take this statement not uncommonly expressed by journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, that journalism should listen to the people it serves. However, to do this would suggest journalism, just like the aforementioned medical doctors, possessed no specialist internal knowledge and skills. Only journalists can eke out the guts of an issue, deciding when and where they see fit to include others.

Journalism largely levels its approach to storytelling by an adherence to the “Five Ws” (and one H), captured eloquently in Kipling’s in The Elephant’s Child”

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Beyond that, journalism practice is posited as an exercise in common sense. “If an MP is caught carrying out a criminal offence, what’s the obvious question you should ask”, was put to me in my MA journalism interview in 1989. I flunked the answer. “Will you resign!”, my interlocutor said.

Common sense is not so common.

In John Yorke’s Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We tell Them, he writes about achilles of television:

In its infancy, television turned its back on such language in favour of a proscenium arch approach…it ignored the work of kuleshov and Eisenstein the father of montage…partly because such theories were still relatively obscure.

That language references cinema and the practice I regularly speak about cinema journalism, which is how if visual or video journalism were launched today, it would come to resemble, c.f. Vice and Vox. Today, it’s still obscure in journalism.

That there is a crisis in journalism is not the doing of its modern form, but the inability of senior execs to be frank about its limitations, or the holes that exist in its epistemology. It’s found it difficult to address, say, diversity, false news, confirmation bias, PR’s impact and relationship with powerful lobbyist who influence its running orders.

While an overall panacea may be far off, or nay impossible, taking a leaf from the airline industry and the medical profession may go someway in trying to address journalism’s soft underbelly.

Writing about changes to Canada’s largest trauma centre, Sunnybrook, Lewis unveils how doctors with knowledge of cognitive psychology were employed to keep the hospital honest. The cockpit environment in airlines underwent similar reforms, removing the hierarchy of the pilots under the banner of Crew Resource Management (CRM).

Redelmeier asserts,

..a sign of how much the profession had changed since he entered it in the mid 1980s when he’d started out, doctors set themselves up as infallible experts; now there was a place in Canada’s leading regional trauma centre for a connoisseur of medical error.

Broadly we look on at journalists as if their possession of training, and, or a certificate should negate fundamental examinations about their person — that each carries memories that shape their thinking, whims that define them in Descartian way, and biases that are unintentional, as sometimes they are purposeful, yet we do little confront it. What’s required is a little more critical direction to ourselves and what we deem acceptable. Why is that lying bastard lying to me, is a stance attributed former Newsnight anchor Jeremy Paxman.

Rather, it seems like we’re caught in a whirlpool — drawn to the sleight of hand in shiny things. The camera never lies, we’re told. Yes it can. It’s being operated by a sentients.

It is these, the unhidden, which require deeper cognitive examination — a fusion of different sorts from a recent TES article expanded in this piece The last ten years and the next — Preparing for what’s to come in journalism.

Frankly, cognitive and behavioural psychology ought to be a key feature of modern journalism. To understand stories, we require stories to understand us. NY professor Michael Schudson noted that journalism is a cultural construct informed by literary and social conventions. Who we are, our beliefs and how we think ought not to be ignored.

Image for post
Image for post

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is part of the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster, recruiting cohorts for 2017/2018. For more go here

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store