Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Learning from the masters who make great television - judging the craft at the RTS

Royal Television Society Awards judging pack 2011

Will she won't she?  Will he do it?  And the winner is... As the best of innovative British Television News prepares to honour its own, RTS Juror David Dunkley Gyimah peers ahead and gives an insight into his working methods. 

The pack arrived through the post today. The contents, the invitation letter and DVD of this year's nominees.

David interviewing Sarah Abdelrahman
in Cairo for feature: Tahrir Memento
 Sarrah Abdelrahman 
It's been a memorable eventful year in the News. The Arab Springs: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria have been the more visible whose events are still reverberating.

Japan's earthquake disaster from its Fukushima reactor meltdown brought us to the brink of a a nuclear nightmare, while in the summer the heat of London's riots raged.

In the European Union, meltdown of another kind as economy after economy ran aground e.g. Greece, Italy and Spain teeter. While in the US, the prelims for which republican will take on President Obama is set to change gear and Iraq as "welcome home (troops)"- has the semiotics for a political turf war.

We know these things and more because those events are packaged into News conveyed to us through multiple media and multimedia. This is where the most talented of practitioners work their craft to inform us the spectators.

Their legacy becomes a footprint for the viewer to marvel. TV, satellite,  twitter, blogs, or the combination of such digital artifacts display these wonderment. Yet of the many news makers only a few can be chosen to represent their extraordinary trade.

RTS Judging
RTS Judging panel (2009)

That task of selection falls to industry figures and those conversant and knowledgeable of this evolving communication discourse, particularly in a digital age of news.

For the fourth year running I'm humbled and delighted to be chosen as one of the jurors for the Innovation in Television News section for the Royal Television Society Awards.

For the non news aficionados, you could call it the Oscars or even EMMY's of British Television News, though quite rightly, the RTS is simply with no comparisons. It is the RTS.

Past victors have included: the Guardian Newspapers Sean Smith Videojournalism, BBC Newsnight's "10 Days to War" and more recently CNN's use of Twitter in South Africa's World Cup.

I reveal no secrets talking about these and no more in what I am about to say.

But judging the best of British television news is obviously a serious undertaking and one that I'm pleased allows me to exercise skills accrued over 25 years.

That includes working in Television News, Dotcoms, Videojournalism, Radio, to helping to set up news networks, advising groups and lecturing in the UK and abroad e.g. Egypt, Lebanon, US and winning the odd international award.

But while heuristics and experience have been invaluable, a skill I'm heavily reliant on is critiquing.

Critiquing not as a surface layer, an exchange of personal views and tastes, but one coalescing a systematic, mental process of seeking objective cues, replicable views using various theories of meaning-making.

Innovation makes it even more interesting. What constitutes innovation and how can it be measured are just a few of the reasonings which are resolved.

Learning to Critique
Masters students in journalism at an editorial news meeting

In our last journalism session for Masters students this year and in subsequent documentary sessions next semester, I lecture in critiquing.  The cause-effect of critiquing is that whilst not all critics make good programme makers, the art of good critiquing intrinsically leads to the ability to make good programmes.

Critiquing and thus learning from the masters makes for great television.

Because embedded in the art of critiquing is understanding how the programme maker serves their audience. Critiquing thus is not a self-indulgent pursuit, but one that involves understanding the intentions of the maker, the internal codes of the network, and the value of us - the audience.

If you can read past the referential or the explicit, then the nuances of deeper codes, textual and visuals, may make you a better judge of media analysis, one that puts you in tune with your intended audience, and potentially makes you a better film maker as well. The lessons of those great writers of Cahiers du Cinema turned film makers e.g Truffaut et al tell us that.

Many post structuralist now agree film is not a language, but language-like and cover a spectrum of theories to make good their point.  Yet the act of good critiquing I believe involves choosing appropriate analytical methods that seek to remove the personalisation - however difficult that may seem for realists.

Thus whether it's the RTS, future journalists decoding the media, or the next generation of media flows, in a media world obeying Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle being grounded in the fundamentals in necessary, yet understanding and interpreting evolving theories for 21st century media is essential.

I'm about to approach my task of deconstructing the RTS nominees work with a humble hand. Something tells me as I open the pack, I'm truly going to enjoy this, immensely.

David (at) viewmagazine (dot) tv

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Witnessing and Essaying - friendly dynamics

From twitter: @RiverDryFilms gets these shots of Army Violence. It's purer verite. No Voice over, just the actuality of the occasion

 Omar Robert Hamilton 
The camera the army didn't get! Here's 's footage of the Army's violence this morning:   

You hear someone say keep down or words to that affect, to avoid detection.  This video represents an interesting case in the internal dynamics of video at work. Good footage and the author eschews talking. 

Watch this and ask yourself what you'd like within the context of the story?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tripoli Witness - balancing naivety and professionalism, a template

Rana Jawad - from BBC World Service site
Listening to Rana Jawad on the BBC's Woman's  Hour I'm struck by one comment.

At the point where she wants to become a journalist and tells her father, she acknowledges the enormous risks she would take. This, she adds was down to her naivety.

Rana, at 22 years of age, seven years ago, would relocate to Tripoli,  and become a BBC Reporter.

But she could not do her job for fear of her life and her husbands.  As a Lebanese-Brit she, conceivably she would have stood out in areas of customs, mannerisms etc.

She turned to blogging and became the figure head behind the highly successful blog Tripoli Witness, now turned into a book by Gilgamesh Publishing.

That naivety is not one to mock. No, but it presents a double edge sword. It helps in ways that are unimaginable, but is at the mercy of so many other forces - when matters turn the other way.

Seven years on, and deservedly so Rana can recount something that isn't just journalistically profound in her professionalism,  but also phenomenological.  Her documentary Knitting in Tripoli may allude to that.

But back to naivety. I believe I know what she's talking about, because at one point I did, and many others have done similar.

In my case the transition of Apartheid South Africa to democracy did not involve war, but the townships and agents seeking to undo the country's march to freedom meant you had to have your wits about you.

Balancing Naivety
I too was naive. One day I was in London seeking contracts to no avail, the next I had boarded a plan to a place I knew little of and found enough work freelancing for the BBC World Service.

South Africa's civic life was one thing, but as a journalist it was your job to go into the heart of conflict zones.

I did not have to go into hiding, so any comparisons to Rana, which I'm not out to make are moot. But that sense of naivity meant I was prepared to go anywhere to find a story. Blind faith indeed. Partly a symptom of being young and adventurous.

So it's a paradox when I have new grads ask me how they make it in journalism. I used to say with a degree of excitement: find a place in the world and make it your own.  Be prepared to give up five years. If the place is high on the agenda for international news all the better. Then build your portfolio.

My journey culminated in a documentary, First Time Voters, that was the only British made doc aired by the South Africa broadcasting one day before their historic elections. It would also be my first multimedia piece.

However as regards risks at the same time following a spate of unfortunate accidents, I have toned down my advice.  Hypocrisy?

Advice for Journalists
David in Soweto writing Dispatches for th
BBC's Magazine Ariel
When I wanted to be a journalist I didn't know the risks, but got through. I remember my night time drive through Katlehong, then designated murder capital of the year with frightening clarity.

Last year a couple of students wanted to travel to agitated zones for the docs.  I wrestled with  a risk assessment issue and how to minimise dangers.

Blogging today lets you work under the cover of anonymity e.g. Rana or  the Baghdad Blogger from 2005. But the journalism is still about putting yourself through risks to get the story.

Something has changed. Respect of the journalist being neutral was never sacrosanct, but attacks on journalists have no doubt increased. The profession appears to inherit less and less to detractors this veneer of the observer communicating realism.

A journalist, to combatants unfortunately so, has become the enemy. Witness Syria at the moment, the BBC had to sneak in under the cover of darkness. The team, correspondent and camera operator, were hugely experienced, but the risks were still high.

Being in the right place at the right time is still a rare gift or involves immense engineering  for journalists. And so it's each one for themselves. Jana's naivety worked for her and many others.

Perhaps perversely its better not to ask to many questions or become to analytical before you set off. Then again, not knowing may place you in positions where you're living by your wits, which is something  you'll probably wish you did not countenance.

Rana's book can be is published here

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Here's to the crazy ones - Apple Ad which never aired

The shoulders which either block your view or you choose to stand upon?

Everyone recalls the Orwellian spot directed by Ridley "Blackhawk Down" Scott

The think differently campaign was more cerebral. Own a Mac and you to could be different.. It's a philosophy which many have followed.  One of those times when  Veblen's reductionist theory of  technological determinism looked self evident.

RT @ZannGill

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Section of Journalism failing; how do we knowledge up

Look deeper
Navel gazing is something journalism doesn't do in public. Everyone else gets the deserving stake: lawyers, bankers, real estate, but you're be hard pressed to see a piece of wood protruding from journalism.

Even the IPC (print) its regulatory body shies away from doing the deed.

No, tell a lie, we have seen glimpses of it. It's cyclic, but they manifest themselves as schadenfreude or at worst meek apologies. Thank goodness for phrases such as :"keeping your eye of the ball". Make a mistake, that's alright then.

Recently, maladroit journalists from the News of the World got zeroed. Years back it was the NYT and the Blair scandal. And ever so often the BBC gets a kipper slap - that's a blood sport.

But there's something more damning in which journalism reluctantly bares its soul. You heard it at its loudest during the Bloggers versus real journalists debates in town halls mid-2000. Thankfully that's now passe.

However I'm prompted by this Evening Standard piece. In an enlightening article, BBC Newsnight's eruditely solid journalist Paul Mason touched on how he came to know that the economy,  following Lehman's and Fannie Mae going breasts up (English idiom), was doomed.

And that reminded me, if a Medicine fails they stand before council and policy wonks, if banking goes Darth Vader, we'd like to think they'd better get their toothbrush ready, but when journalism fails, it's a minor blip and we're back to normal.

Journalism on Trial
Can someone make a programme in which they put journalism in the dock for gross negligence? Because if it's the job of the fourth estate to monitor all else, it failed during the Euro crisis, during the over lending, is failing at climate change and is doing a depressing job explaining how politics and economics is running on empty.

Of course it depends what you mean by journalism? Witnesses of the first draft, they observe, react and then let the populace make up their minds. All that's well and good except for instance when I was completing a course at the LSE in Global Finance, I was told printing money was the equivalent of murder.

Yet still Economic reporters treat quantitative easing as if it were a euphemism for walking the dog; it's normal. Mason is right. Politics is bust. This old world order needs reforming.

One of the required reading books in 1995 was Around the World on a Trillion Dollars a Day: How Rebel Currency Trade by Gregory J Millman. No more financial packages brokers from the far east pleaded to the Americans at one stage.

Obviously this whole post has a scent of the supercilious about it. You can't put journalism on trial. It's not monolithic and is owned by no one. And as the argument goes, guns don't kill its people. It's not journalism that's losing it, it's the people. And there are brilliant journalists at work.

Books a plenty have been written about journalism, based on intellectual theories growing up into practical markers and vice versa. In the 1980-90s friends of mine, black and Asian, knew the journalism people had got it woefully wrong surveying markedly under employed newsrooms. That was painful.

Today such ideology in a pluralistic and meritocratic society is little heard of. But the question needs to be entertained. Clearly unequivocal capitalism is looking forlorn. Socialism also has it soft fleshy underbelly looking way vulnerable.

When you look at journalism over large chunks of history, you begin to see how it was a work in progress.  As journalist Andrew Marr states in his page turner, My Trade, "Journalists are not taught what news is. We learn by copying".

It's done so from Defoe in the 1700s, who combated the charlatans who made up news. Defoe "believed in going and seeing with his own eyes" writes Marr, through to the rise of the modern reporter and great names such as Hugh Cudlipp.

Ever so often, a figure such as Stephen Glover, a former Editor strikes out at the industry. Cited in My Trade, Glover says, "there are many serious voices in the broadsheets, but they exist alongside ever more lavish coverage of celebrities and daft pieces about animals".

Wall to wall celebrity news you'll find from looking back on the news is a recent invention.

Work in Progress
So 2011, and despite the detonation of Twitter ( Arab Springs), Facebook et al are we still bound by top down news agenda. Has the work in progress stopped? Is this it? Did we reach the fundamentals, non negotiables, in the 1950s?  Note Twitter is at its more potent by Generation Kup when used without recourse to the structures of traditional journalism.

And if journalism can't get to understand issues before they atrophy in front of our eyes, are we being served?  Is journalism doing its bit? That's what Leonard Witts asked in his Restoring the Trust Conference I spoke at in 2005.

Course it is. If they write and you do nothing about it, that's not journalism's fault. The web and social networks have changed journalism irrevocably, or have they? A study by Goldsmith College last year stated the contrary.

Theories of news remain, its multi philosophy needs more Kuhning.  Witness how South Africa's legislators have wounded journalism badly.

The new tools we  have will likely continue to grow. Question is do we slot them into existing frameworks of journalism or seek to build new ones and what then are systemised modules for teaching journalism to a new generation?

Artistry dear boy, someone said to me.

Post script: I interviewed a Top TV bod some weeks ago. His comments to me were TV News is back. Mmmm

David publishes at Viewmgazine.tv

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Rise of the Non-story - How to Teach it

Snow out London - 18 years worst ever from david dunkley gyimah on Vimeo.
Above an example of a non story, made at that moment in time as events unfolded.

In my last post I spoke about how knowledge has a shelf life.

Here I want to broach something even more heresy; the idea that the story form we've been accustomed to may have run its course.

This is not an unequivocal admission of a decomposition of the story form.

But an explication that in our hyperised society, of click- throughs, and gaming levels, that the story is never complete - the sequel consisting of fragments. Hyperised incidentally is my neologism meaning the rise of hypermediation.

This is not the first of such an enquiry; the surrealists made the non-story an art form, the French an industry and the Lumieres' their first film.

And we've become privy to the You tube blip - an expression of an event which peaks in seconds and is gone: a stunt, an event, a Lumiere moment.

We've become so attuned to the film as arc of conflict and resolution e.g. Hollywood flicks and TV that we entertain less anything construed as just reality.

Inside archive
Consider news - a mediated form of reality repackaged to produce that Aristotelian template we've come to worship since 330 BC. News borrowed the form from docs, which took it from film, which lifted it from theatre and herein drama- the Poetics.

But there was a time, as I research within national news vaults ( see picture above) when our knowledge of story form was well, skewed.

In the still image above, the video is of a runner starting mid flow and then at a well rehearsed point stops to provide an interview. The story itself is nothing worth shouting about. This is story form as we knew only 50 years ago.

We teach story because that's what the industry demands: film and TV. We see no need to teach the non-story for we see it as precisely that.

A story with no form; when it starts it has no definable middle and no end. It's the gibberish before you learn to speak, the stuff everyone does leaving no room for the professional, so has no value.

The Lumiere's La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (1895) is such a piece of reality, except because the Lumiere's pioneered film form this fabula is a museum piece.

Non story
In 1999 my colleague and I conceived of a story, the Family which made the finals of Channel 4's media competition. It too had no middle, no end. It went on until you stopped. Yet it had built in arcs.

the family

Today sitting in hospital, a thought?  Is that not sometimes how we construct new knowledge?

The amazing stories of those that recover from illness. Their stories defy being packaged because each day is another day of inspiration - its episodic.

More recently the head of BBC Newsrooms Mary Hockaday, who is responsible for editorial policy and manages across the BBC, spoke to me. Reality, the unmediated, is finding renewed interest within this powerful media organisation.

The conversation could end here, but I'll push its elasticity. In the making of 24 the series with Cinematographer Rodney Charters would hire the best camera operators to freestyle; those shaky shots.

The irony of it all. The best of the industry were being paid to undo all the pro shooting they had learnt to producing something raw and unpolished. Could not a rookie shooters have done the same?

The question is analogical for professionals shooting the non story or stand ups telling non-jokes. Can a pro story maker produce something which is engaging but not a complete story.

If so what are its variants? How do stand ups with dead pan deliveries engage us with the most banal of narratives?

To break the rules, first we must understand what they are and the purpose they serve. More soon.

For this piece is no more complete than the story form I'm seeking to explain.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

How Videojournalism Lost its Mojo, Died, and is being Reborn Again.

Videojournalism at Viewmagazine.tv
Videojournalism at Viewmagazine.tv: "If you start from the same building blocks from whence you came, the creation you envision may likely be a version of what you know. And in such cases the creation can be no more than a short lived one - a plaster".  

I elaborate. At periodic cycles the knowledge within a profession effectively ceases to meet the new demands made on it.  There are many reasons for this.

  • Competition from outside the profession.
  • Increased societal knowledge -  e.g. audience.
  • Technological advances which expose flaws.
  • Philosophical debates that undermine existing theories.

Journalism is no more immune to these shocks as we've witnessed than professions such as medicine and engineering.

But the response to address these unknowns is a curious, but predictable one. Often collective knowledge within a company, institution, attempts a remedy by taking the status quo and looking to build upon it.

Videojournalism is a great example. You're a TV station, newspaper or independent media and see videojournalism as an answer to the status quo. Everyone does now.

You train your journalists to create a product which on reflection is little different to your hegemonic dominant ideas of television.  And why should it be any different?  TV works yes!

The knowledge for dealing with your conundrum resides within existing knowledge (ontology). The building blocks you're using emerge from an institutional knowledge that is laid down in stone. It is a theory that is firmly resolute.

Except theories and knowledge are not fixed. We only believe what we believe because current broad thinking suggest so and anything to the contrary abrogates the very tenants of that profession's integrity. Or so we think.

How we learn
University academia is one where theory and practice converge within a standardized environment, where some lecturers engage in problem-solving look to artistic means, which facilitates the student to think of a different approach.

As Schon and Dewey, notable Scholars who excavate the essence of these theories also note, artistic reflection is difficult to teach.

Theories and a Philosophy.
Theories and a philosophy of videojournalism reside not just in a TV paradigm, but institutional journalistic one. The flaw isn't the journalism,  but how you attempt to mould videojournalism into what you know.

Twitter is a great example of how an external agent conceived of a techno-societal product in comms manages to push extra-agency conversations amongst its users. But in the hands of TV has only served to circulate their confined conversation.

" You can follow me on twitter at @sameoldstory".

I've had two sessions in the last month where my aim has been to make this clear: a clinical company and a Chinese delegation. Both were engaged in what's called knowledge transfer - reworking existing paradigms so see where changes can be made.

If medicine once believed bleeding helped cured illnesses, it wasn't because they were wrong, but because current thinking then of the best minds believed it so. It took radical thinking, beyond the convention to find a new solution.

Within videojournalism, on a theory level for instance, one example is objectivity - a fallacy that requires a new approach. This is not the same as balance - which can also be reworked, and is not to say objectivity doesn't have value. See the medicine analogy above.

But that if the lack of it prevents you from telling a story, there's a problem. This needs a new classification to ensure probity and the integrity of reportage.

On a practical level an example is when the filmic product that emerges tends to be  a poor cut of the same cloth, because the film says nothing more that its sister product TV news could tell.

The videojournalist decree first published in 2007 looks at a new framework for denoting storyform.

Here's another interesting observation. Whilst the solution may well reside within the knowledge pool, the approach to dealing with that knowledge requires an artistic approach - an approach so radical as to change the framework and question to your original problem.

The question is not: "I need video on my site, so it requires videojournalism". If you want video on your site - any video producer can do that.  If the question is "I want something on our site which keeps my audience coming back, because the media has that coming-back quality", then you're closer to videojournalism.

Such thoughts have not been a flight of fancy but have evolved engaging in heuristics of videojournalism and TV over 25 years and talking to some of the best minds in the business from Rosenblum, Winston, and Purvis to lesser known but brilliant practitioners, and those outside the profession, such as Applied Chemists and architects.

I'm an Applied Chemistry grad myself and sensed the answer to one of my questions involving videojournalism could only be answered from organic chemistry.

Again we need to deconstruct "Artistic", less you're inclined to think it means Renoir et al. As an Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre, its Artistic Director  Jude Kelly OBE put it well. It's where you abandon conventional thought, which as an expert you're inclined to follow.  Its risk taking based on hunches, reflective thinking, the irrational and rational - an artistic endeavor.

There was no text book, no convention that ascribed how US Airways 1549 could land on water. It took the ingenuity, perception, experience - artistic - endeavors for Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger and Co pilot Jeff Skiles and crew to steer the plane down safely.  Note in cases like this experience alone is not the determinant.

There are new names emerging now to distinguish the videojournalism it should always have been but became entombed elsewhere. There's accelerated videojournalism or meta-vinejournalism  (pronounced Venee).  The latter is a hybridisation of cinema and video. While meta means: "beyond".

Ultimately journalism was meant to solve something, many things, but principally 1930s onwards: inform, educate, and entertain. Yet to those variables can be added: reveal a reality, care through awareness, meet contemporary demands of techno-social revelations, and so on.

There are many reasons why we still don't know what we should, and that requires a different approach to what we're doing. We'll find a new name for describing this journalism one day.

David Dunkley Gyimah has been a videojournalist since 1994, and started off as a journalist at the BBC in 1987. He is currently completing a PhD and publishes Viewmagazine.tv  He is a Royal Society Television (RTS) juror for the UK's RTS Innovation in media awards and will be presenting at the BFI next month on "INSIDE VIDEOJOURNALISM" - revealing his research, among other things. BFI Videojournalism is organised by David Hayward of  BBC Journalism college, UCLAN Paul Egglestone and David. 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

How to be a great writer, film maker, designer - creative

Christine Watson, a recent graduate of that much admired creative writing school at UEA, has been nominated for one of the "most prestigious and popular literary prizes", the Costa Prize.

She's in fine company: Julian Barnes, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and Claire Tomalin to name a few.

Today, she shared her thoughts on Radio 4's Today programme joined by one of the UK's most well known writers Ian McEwan. The programme was itself reflecting on how the University of East Anglia had come to produce a crop of eminent writers in the last 40 years.

I was talking to my Masters students about UEA only two days ago, explaining how my best book to date is Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, and that I believe you can't teach how to write.

This point was made far more eloquently by the presenter James Naughtie and Christine. It's about the structure of writing, being immersed within a faculty where people were in love with writers, that spurns you on.

She said one of the best pieces of advice passed on by a lecturer was write for the audience.

UEA's writing
UEA's writing course which I once read about in an Observer article many years back seemed all the more remarkable because as McEwan. put it tutorials were often held in a pub with fleeting talks with Bradbury - one of the founders.

Here's my next piece of writing McKewan would say to whicht the response  would be, right where's the next?

Watson's interview at 8.18 a.m  is a must listen  by anyone who wants to excel in any creative field, where assets are readily available, and lecturers set about providing structure and advice for what to do next?

If you want to write as a journalist, you should blog everyday if you can, not because I might say so, but because you want to be a writer. You must attempt to develop a critical insight into what you do. Read Noel Carroll, read lost of books.

And, that ultimately it's always about the audience. That's a piece of advice I give myself everyday.