Ask anyone who’s a journalist or believes they know how it works and why journalism is failing and you might as well have asked how many journalists does it takes to change a light bulb?
Dunno! They’re all too busy talking at each other for an answer. Generally, journalism is easy to read, hence it’s easy to critique. Filmmakers are saddled with the equivalent burdensome chalice and often have to endure snipes from anyone telling them their five months of location shooting topped of into a one-hour twenty minute film is, er rubbish.
Small wonder, the bottle can become a refuge.
If you can write, you’re a journalist — a white heat debate ensued around 2005 when bloggers fought for the same acknowledgement as professional journalists who were reluctant to grant them that wish.
We’ve moved on. Today, an assortment of social media tools, mobile phone apps and the obligatory RØDE mic is all you need to become a mobile journalist — the mojo makers extol. Journalism — storytelling with codified rules often by consensus, sometimes by self interest groups — is a Facebook addled, 140 character primed, mainstream totem in some cases, and hence presumably is impartial to boot.
The Internet of Things world we’re converging on shows it is a thing now purportedly desperately assuaged by technology. Rubbish! Tech’s been in bed with journalism since the beginning, and with a strong social need. Remember Jacob Riis and the story of the flash light.
Oh! whilst you’re still trying to find out how to change the light bulb, throw in some HTML 5 tags, a 360 camera for that evanescence film, and take a break at the Kool aid counter as you contemplate your Schadenfreudeness. And don’t forget those conferences you need to attend — how to build 1m on Instagram? What’s not to like about journalism? Shiny happy journalism.
But it’s broken. IT’S BROKEN. It wasn’t fake news. It wasn’t Trump. The suits that shaped, drove, delivered journalism did this. A revolutionary bit of storytelling engineering became a glib exercise in management. Don’t get me wrong it has worked and there continue to be exemplary journalists, but this excerpt from the broadcast industry’s magazine in 1998 says it all.
At this point, were this a film, you’d hear that perennial screech of the phonogram needle across vinyl because for what its worth, at its most simplest and strip down form, its most floor level understanding, at its most core whether dressed up with one fancy tech or another, journalism is simply telling a story accurately, with probity and you telling the story, you with your mind, matter.
Oh yes, those journos changing the light bulb, if they come from the same place they most likely adumbrate the same journalism methodology. If they’re bound by the same culture, they probably wouldn’t risk being caught moribund in the South, or North (depending where you’re from) cuz them folks don’t get it. Or they consider moral equivalence is about extremist views prevailing at all costs, and that school education meant you could spot and decode a person a mile off courtesy of Blanche and Wicklesford (1931) bibliography. Are we missing the point?
In the world outside of the bulb room, we know it isn’t so. The spectrum of beliefs, cultures, personalities, backgrounds is enriching and immeasurable. Grenfell Towers speaks to that meandering its streets. If the chief executive in charge of housing has never set foot in a high rise — many of which dot across her ward can she execute her policies effectively in empathising with tenants? If that culture, on the other side, is perceived as no more than a pastiche of fashion statements and beats per minutes, is it little wonder your views may be constricted whilst you adamantly deify you’re liberal minded.
Yesterday, one of the UK’s most venerable journalists Jon Snow spoke movingly to his profession, acknowledging his own elitist family background — the son of a clergy man — whose conscious led him into life’s bountiful experiences. He became a teacher in East Africa and was an executive for a homeless shelter back in England. He famously was ejected from his University (no formal training as a journalist) for demonstrating against views that he believed were wrong. A couple of years ago Warwick, his university, conferred on him an honorary doctorate.
Jon Snow, was telling his industry about them lightbulbs metaphorically and that as an interpretation of events, who you are and where you’re from deeply matters. Packaged today, at times, as diversity, its presence draws hostile lines even before a debate is started. An erudite communicator, Jon could talk to a five-year-old and a president in one breadth and accord them both the respect they both deserved. I came to know him in the newsroom pretty well when I joined Channel 4 News around 1997.
Throughout the four years plus at the programme I would produce several reports with him and came to find out he made my voice matter. When I returned to South Africa to report on progress of the country’s fledgeling democracy he championed what I would bring back. I’d lived and worked in South Africa for about two years from 1992–1994. There were nuances, and shades that I could eke out, that others may have found difficult: a racist murderer who agreed to meet me, young South Africans experiencing what the end of Apartheid meant. It helped too that I could speak different African languages which could get me into places.
Journalism is about an interpretation and comprehension of events. Some paper and a pencil if you must, will do. It is, as the eminent Professor Schudson puts it a construct.
Descarte’s big breakthrough was , logically deducing who he was and that by doubting it had value, or the tussle between Locke and Hume about whether sensations maketh the mind or that we are a tabula rasas — ready to be painted upon by our teachers, surroundings and family to imbue us with a colour of how we see the world.
This is the value of journalism — the technology is the conduit that delivers our thinking. At times it yields a style, sometimes through perception without it. Yes, you couldn’t show how the data meant an official was corrupt, but you had to think that way before applying the tech.
Our initial port of call is acknowledging the broad church of ideas we all possess and that critical exposition of information, rationally detailed, whilst attempting to break bread with those on the divide, mindful of our limitations in framing, could some how be of use. Michael Lally, a senior executive at RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster, once gave his scheduled news over to a community to do the reporting. It won RTE new fans.
Why is journalism failing? Truth, throughout its existence it’s careened from success in attempting to document truth as fact, to abject failing when working class were driven out from their publications such as the Northern Star to be replaced with new tabloids. The Daily Mail 1896, Daily Mirror 1903, and Daily Express 1900 owned by gentry were supported by governments. Journalism morphed into a profession for the elite and powerful, and whilst you could name any number of amazing reports in which journos have excelled, the “who we are’ got narrower and narrower.
This year, at my university we launch a new venture — a way for unpacking and looking at the optics of things — a LAB. Conventions should be up for grabs with cohorts understanding why those choices exist, and the one they’ll have to grapple with immediately is ‘who am I?’ and ‘what do I stand for?’ Can I safely say I can represent the views of the oppressed and afflicted and some — as H. L. Mencken did. Frankly, I’d ditched the label ‘journalism’. We rarely write in journals and its conventions, well they need rebooting, but that won’t happen.
How does an account of an event find its way to readers to examine its truth, when that constituents have been made to believe that journalism coming from the other side is an imposter?
Its choices could start with diversifying the storytellers, and hopefully before the last vestiges of Mencken journalists as exemplars finally turns off the light.
David, named one of the leading writers in journalism on @Medium, is an international award winning videojournalist and Knight Batten innovator in journalism. He leads the disLAB, an innovative programme in storytelling at the University of Westminster, and is this year’s Asper Visiting Professor in Journalism at University of British Columbia. Here for more on Cinema Journalism .
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