Why we need to be teaching a radically different storytelling approach to journalism.
That’s right! We’re still failing.
Besmirched by the powerful. Played by manipulators. Combative at times, unsure of its role in others. Indifferent about its achilles way before this millennia. Tech has been its ally which it’s always tamed. Then they lost control. Now what?
“What d’you think?”
“Wow! Kinda scary and graphic”, he says.
Five minutes earlier I’m telling Charlie, whom I‘ve just met, “I can’t show this to those coming in. I’m just not sure”. In the dead of night several millennials travelling in a mini-bus are singing triumphant war songs. We’re four hours from Aleppo at a time of high drama. The US is deciding whether to strike Assad’s forces. The vehicle’s occupants, undergrads in medicine, theatrical studies and dentistry have turned videographers searching for that story that connects with the punctum of the outside world.
“That’s Hakewati!” says Waad al-Kateab, Channel 4’s multiple award winning filmmaker when I show her the a photo of the line up I shot six months earlier. He’s a legend. I have a plan with the group, but not before the video makes it point.
“Can we bring them in now?” asks Aimee, a teacher in media studies amongst other things. Millfield independent school in the heart of Somerset has an impressive cavernous auditorium fit for a symphony orchestra, alongside state of the art facilities. Its previous alumni, called OMs include: Tony Blackburn, radio DJ; Stewart Copeland, musician; Sophie Dahl, model; and Sir Gareth Edwards, British Lions and Wales rugby international.
Today seventy teenage Millfielders who are about to take their seats, unsure perhaps of the billiard balls on the floor and what on earth they have to do with journalism, or me clutching Mark Harris’ Five Men Came Back, are tomorrow’s journalists.
What frames this generation as I mark my spot is:
- They are their own content creators easily identifying themselves as brands and so their attention is not a given.
- They’re not loyal to anyone. Deference is hard earned, but loyalty is proffered to those that get them
- Their interest in news revolves around personal emotional life issues. How does it affect me and my peers?
- They’re not conventional media abbots.
- And truthfully, at least in my head they’d rather be anywhere else but here.
A show of hands indicates they’re all tooled up on the big social five: Face book’s recent controversy seems not to have dented any enthusiasm, in spite of data stating the young are abandoning the platform. Snapchat pulls an animated chorus of approval, Twitter, less so. YouTube’s riding high and Instagram? Well there’s almost a universal approval.
The Net’s naturalness, social media’s hierarchy of needs, and a political earth- tilt to an uncertain future has re-engineered millennials’ outlook. Privacy still treasured continues to lose ground as does the ownership of things. No wonder consumerism in a bind, but that’s not the issue today. For the proto journalists in the room whose copy and films we’re likely to encounter in five years time, we’re in a spiralling vortex of complacency regarding the teaching of journalism.
How many of you want to go into PR? I ask them. Last month Salford University, to harumphs in the industry, decided to offer a journalism course with PR annexed. Interesting move. A couple put up their hands. “Well on average you’re earn twice as much, and you get to tell journalists what to do” If Salford can use their launch to unravel who’s doing what to whom, they’re onto something.
It is strange that in 2018, for all the journalism reforms, navel-gazing, and conferences you’re likely to attend, the best we can do to the elephant in the room is to tickle its feet in the hope it’ll leave.
Journalism has many adversaries many of whom have taken up combative positions beyond a war of attrition: PR, marketeers, spin doctors, attention seekers, social mediasts, the powerful with hidden skeletons, depth manipulators, shysters and propagandists, yet few journalism students understand the darkness and sorcerers wielding persuasive powers.
When this was posted on the net a couple of days ago, it bore all the hallmarks of being real, arriving during a crisis that added to its believability. It isn’t. This is not to suggest the poster is being disingenuous. The site itself is a hoax. Hence a generation now need tools and a skillset to unravel this, but also a fundamental shift in the way our minds work, that whilst the default is to believe, we should be cautious now at best. That needs to be learned.
The question is do we continue with a broad status quo of journalism, a sort of modern 17th century rigidity of a new Media Church doctrine where truth is atrophying under constant onslaught? Meanwhile, how do we shape a future where millennials as inheritors have a different mindset to Xers, Zs, and Baby Boomers and where brutal truth and honesty is not negotiable. Yet where fresh knowledge to decode this miasma of Trumpton reality is needed.
Visceral, in your face, honest, empathetic, personable, deft content — on the one hand I tell my hosts these are characteristics they give over to cinema. Cinema truths of a fresh kind paying homage to the late Robert Drew. At which point I introduce my hosts to Mark Harris’ book: Five Came Back. In his page-turner read turned into a Netflix doc, we witness Hollywood Oscar winning filmmakers whom during WWII downed their director’s hats to get involved in the war effort. Yes, mainly in making advocacy films but also driving journalism content which told the truth. This was cinema journalism before television news. The rules were how do I get me and my camera to tell what’s going on. Generally to do this, is to understand the psychology of film in ways that keeps you nailed to your seat for 2 hours in a dark room.
Cinema journalism rebooted circa 2000 plus looks like this.
Yet either way, whilst on the one hand cinema invites a consciousness to the reception of image and sound productions, trad news works instinctively in the 4th wall, rendering its process invisible. How else could you get Britain’s PM Theresa May’s beaning in South Africa as a cheery bit of fun, as her press secretary looks on. Or that the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson can happily draw on a metaphor linking Brexit and suicide vests. They know what they’re doing.
It took a Cambridge Analytical crisis to drive home that the Milgram experiment is alive and being conducted on viewer’s en mass. Everyone’s stiffing us in a giant freudian mind assault and the one institution that should be saving us, education still thinks journalism and psychology are separate subjects.
I finish my talk pulling on Gustav Le Bon’s research more than a hundred years ago. Far from us being rational reasoning beings, our irrationality, which is less discussed continues to be mined by adversaries. We ought to be talking more about how we think, instead of a techno-fetishism that controls what we think. The unspoken news is how our minds are being rewired. We normalise malfeasant event. Requesting assistance to address this can’t be asking for too much in these times. I receive applauses from my hosts. I hope we can fix this.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah leads the digital and interactive storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster and is a visiting prof at UBC in Vancouver. A previous freelance correspondent in Apartheid South Africa for the BBC World Service, and producer on Channel 4 News, ABC News and Newsnight, His work is cited in a number of books e.g. Encyclopedia of Journalism. A Knight Batten winner for Innovation in Journalism, International award winning videojournalist and former artist in residence at the South bank Centre, his work lies in the interstice of technology, journalism, entrepreneurialism and art. He’s been voted one of the influential Ghanaians in the UK and is one of @medium’s top writers in journalism. He publishes viewmagazine.tv . Email him here Davidatviewmagazine.tv