Why a generation is turned off news and how to win them back again. True story.
“I don’t like and watch news, but I will watch a movie about the news. Do you know why that is?” Patricia, asks me. I’m often posed that question.
Take the Oscar winning film, Roma by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, it’s a film about the ordinariness of a domestic helper caught up in life’s challenges, based on a true story — Cuaron’s childhood. Patricia would pay to see this, but wouldn’t be interested if its source material was the subject of a report by television news.
Patricia, is a Millennial and her views reflect that of many others her age. Statistics point to this. 16–24 year olds watch just two-minutes of news a day while Baby Boomers watch on average 33 minutes. And it’s not as if Patricia doesn’t like news, she engages on Social Media.
So what’s the reason?
There are a myriad, such as competition from other genres, such as dramas on Netflix. But an overriding reason is television’s content and the way it’s made. Simply put, it’s boring. Put another way, the medium that safeguards are democracy is poor at communicating to Patricia and several Millennials.
And an official report from the media regulator Ofcom New News, Future News bears this out. News is guilty of telling the same old story, with the same techniques and same actors and perspective, the report says.
How Do I know ?
I’ve been fascinated by Patricia’s atypical question for over 25 years. It happened when I became one of the first NUJ recognised videojournalists in the UK.
Through exhaustive research, tapping into my own experience working in news, such as Newsnight and Channel 4 News, and travelling across the world in pursuit of a reason, I was able to distil this into a significant answer.
At venues like SWSX, and Apple I presented the evidence largely through my own work which garnered attention, and then I started to collate others doing something I found familiar and fascinating.
First, I’ll pose a question.
What if all those movies based on a true story were configured and shot as the actual true story itself unfurled? Take this film. In 2010, I wrote in my blog how television had once again baulked at a huge opportunity to make a larger narrative of this drama compelling. It would take Hollywood to step in.
Now, I might know what you’re thinking. The drama and backstory featured in The 33 Miners there’s no way television journalist could have got hold of that, because no one knew it would be the story it is. But that presupposes that there was only one way of telling this story to capture its drama and characters.
But what then if news could capture events that came across as cinema? The style Patricia and Millennials voraciously consume. What if there was a way of doing cinema in journalism that captured audiences?
There is, and in 2014 after I submitted my PhD thesis to examiners, I would call it cinema journalism, otherwise artistic videojournalism. By then I’d collected enough evidence to prove a pattern, and it still keeps pouring in, such as this year.
The Cinema Journalists
The three films above are either Oscar nominated or have won copious awards around the world. You may know them as documentaries. However they were made individuals who were videojournalists and told us so.
In a nutshell, a videojournalist is someone who shoots news themselves, yet it misses a critical point.
For Sama’s filmmaker Waad al-khateab made news for Channel 4; Hell and Back Again filmmaker Danfung Dennis had his work shown on PBS; and Pani, Women, Drugs and Kathmandu filmmaker Raul Gallego Abellan is one of the most awarded videojournalists who shot for AP, Channel 4 News and others.
Videojournalism today is now common place, yet it’s deeply misunderstood. That’s in part because of news organisations e.g. BBC who were first vehemently opposed to it, then had to run with the tide and through their narrative have rewritten its description. Academics then perpetuate this erroneously and lazily claiming the BBC invented videojournalism. It didn’t.
Videojournalists are gear and platform agnostic. Within their genus are individuals who see the world differently, and they can be classified as cinema journalists because they work the way a film director does, using an array of tools, cameras, techniques to craft a story. There’s a reason why many of the award winning videojournalists are adept as using mobiles, drones and DSLRs. They are the jack of all trades and masters of them all. The converse isn’t necessarily true if you’ve dedicated yourself to exclusively a piece of gear.
Cinema journalists are explicitly influenced by styles and techniques from the work of great artists whose work is often creatively expressed in movies. They understand the power of cinematography, of narration, of the psychology of film, memorability and editing that structures a great film. It’s become ingrained in them. One of my colleagues 25 years ago confesses to how cinema influenced his work as a videojournalist. His The Imposter won a BAFTA.
My research unearthed at the time at least 25 extraordinary working videojournalists who were making cinema. And just to be clear there are many cinema styles; there is no one essence of cinema. And cinema does not mean fiction. That’s Hollywood for you. The three films above embrace an Indie style essay ( read Laura Rascaroli), Indie Neorealism and Third Cinema. Cinema journalists are rare in television journalism because of television’s adherence to TV News’ fixed style.
Whilst they are pioneers. They paradoxically are not the first journalists to use the language of cinema explicitly. For that I can take you way back in time, but for this post, I’ll present to you Albert Maysles and and interview with Robert Drew. In the 90s you get Michael Rosenblum as the father of modern videojournalism. Please also note some RTS award winning television reporters employ cinema in their work. They’re often praised as creating “great television”. I’ll write about them in another post.
In the 1960s, Drew, a photo editor for Life Magazine, obsessed over this and seeing the direction television news was taking devised with his friends: Leacock, Maysles, and Pennebaker, Direct Cinema. It’s often interchanged with cinema verite (and yes if you’re a scholar I’m aware of the distinction with Jean Rouch and Cinéma vérité). The point here that’s hidden in full view is Drew’s use of Cinema, which by the way was first rubbished by American networks.
Here’s my interview with this giant of a man. Well worth a listen.
Television Execs to blame
In effect television news execs are responsible for the decline in viewership. To understand why, you need to go to the inception of television news. Here’s a synopsis.
In 1948 television news’ was being devised. It was a hard fought experiment that brought together mainly newspaper journalist, radio, documentary makers and the odd soul from the world of fictional cinema.
A select number of execs, such as the BBC’s Grace Wyndham Goldie were after the nirvana for this new medium. There were huge constraints. The TV’s were the size of a 13-inch computer screens. They were black and white, and above all to migrate viewers onto this new device, execs needed to come up with a new form.
They found it and it was ingenious; in part forced by advertisers. Television journalism could not be more than two minutes, and whilst borrowing the language of fictional cinema, movement across the screen and the editing regime was to be minimised. Movement is often the hall mark of great cinema and because TV was not much valued they could not afford cameras, like their cinema friends, to create real time spatial cuts, like a cut from wide shot to close up crossing the line for a more impactful shot.
By 1960, with advertisers pouring money into television news and the bulletins expanding to 30-minutes, a new television form would be cemented. It placed the reporter into the core of the story and would become the package.
The news package became the doctrine of all news, exported across the world. There might be nuances in house styles, but things like the frame language loosely borrowed from cinema would now become fixed. The piece to camera to identify the reporter, and the cut away to deal with the annoying slippage between the synch of image and words on film became lore.
Today the package remains very much intact and senior TV News people lament it can’t be the answer to today’s television, but no one can see an alternative. Note here all along I have been talking about news’ story form, rather than its elements like interviews, live reports etc. Before she left for NBC, ITV’s head of News gave me this interview about the news package.
It’s as if the way we make television news is as sacrilegious as the text from the bible. Yet television’s reportage style is a construct and men and women long since gone might be amazed to see it still intact. No other creative (small c) form has maintained the status quo of its origins.
News mainly because of its investment and legacy of familiarity dare not to change but at this rate of audience loss it may find itself the driver towards its demise. That is unless they uncover a new way to bring Millennials in.
Some years back Vice News too captured an essence of cinema. It resulted in news execs and they still do this, ask for a piece of news “vice-like”. But to get there means overhauling what’s taught. I didn’t quite understand this thirty years ago as a newbie reporting for BBC Reportage, yet the evidence today is conclusive.
In 2006 I picked up this international award after training the UK’s first regional newspaper journalists with PA. I would train hundreds afterwards across the country.
For more on me and my practice click here