Sunday, December 01, 2013

Journalism's ageing and decrepit profile - Knight Batten award winning journalist and senior lecturer presents a future

We hold certain immutable rules about journalism upheld through its long and well documented history. Those rules mean something. They separate gossip from fact, or hearsay from the industrial application of journalism's art.

Before the Internet, when a fixed number of channels informed us, they were sacred. Audiences learned that TV journalism stations in Britain  and in the US were exercising a form of writing and broadcasting that was a bit like the legal system is fixed.

If you're a student or a professional you will undoubtedly be told to learn the laws of broadcast television. How to film, why to film, what you can say and so on. Intricately fixed with this regime is broadcast news philosophy.

It's exegesis appears entrenched: we might argue the toss about what objectivity and impartiality mean, or whether balance constitutes fairness, but we accept we need these qualities to make journalism function efficiently and fairly.

We need these systems, just as we need directions for which way cars drive down a street, or that you buy a ticket before you board a train. Systems create order, minimise variability, allow us to make sense from right, wrong, what works and doesn't.

Journalism holds to these equivalent immutable laws. However, something's broken, something's not working, something's fighting against the current status quo, and we're not sure what it is?

Some blame digital and its tools. Others the business model that underpins journalism, and others still to use Ayittey's phrase the cheetah generation out to do in the hippo generation. It would not be unheard of to accuse the cheetah's of being intemperate or seeking to challenge authority at every whim.

Videojournalism Training from david dunkley gyimah on Vimeo.

Every generation has had its cheetah's since the cheetah proper roamed the earth.  The 60s, the 20s, the whenever. When the Russians drove their film industry under lenin, Vertov, Pudovkin Drankhov were all young. Doublier who travelled around with the first camera to record moving pictures was 17.

Yes something's broken, something profound, which digital exposed, and cheetah's found favour with. It's become plaintively clear in a transparent environment that the business of journalism was ripping us off.

We spend this for a newspaper, that for a subscription to a broadcast networks' news, when the CEOs were inflating their costs to buy their villas and yachts. Though the latter, is a rarity amongst the pragmatism in journalism.  But how do you put a price on journalism, just as how do you put a price on art!

Yes its broken, because it was never fixed. That doesn't imply a flaw or fault line in journalism, but that it was and is a human construct bound by principles that worked during periods when all agreed and turned an obvious blind eye to its inadequacies.

The art of storytelling to tell factual stories was always someone's version, but if that version was given by men and women of high value, it was considered immutable, the truth, IT.

Whilst others could be mendacious with the truth, journalism eschewed this. Honour, integrity and impartiality reigned. But here's the problem, with all the greatest human qualities just mentioned, someone telling a story, is that still that someone's story.

And if there are opposing subjects in the story, there will always be a point of view that someone, as much as they tried to will be anaemic on the one hand and stronger on the other.

Journalism is a bit like a dictator state being held together by a heavy hand of the state and once the heavy has gone, the minions start to interrogate and see what was wrong. That is not to suggest that journalism is corrupt.

No, journalism is a noble and honourable profession. It has provided me with experiences which have been richer than any other profession I can contemplate.
David Dunkley Gyimah in 1999 as a videojournalist using a two camera shoot, London. 

One minute I am with a throng of journalists interviewing Mandela. Next its Quincy Jones. Then it's the former head of the CIA and then spending time near the border of  Syria working with some of its cheetah journalists.

Whats happened has been a gargantuan shift in societies understanding of storytelling as defined by news. This is no secret ergo the hypodermic needle theory. the post structural approach. What these told us was that societies change and by their interaction with news making yield a new model of association.

What's happened now, particularly from the Net, and in areas of academic and industrial scrutiny is that news and they way it was defined, can no longer stare bare faced at its audience and proclaim a truth which is based on the tenants of old.

The most powerful of all story forms was and is cinema. Cinema is to the moving picture what art (paintings particularly) is to the static picture. Yet the most powerful of these forms presented a gnawing dilemma for the founders of news.

Anyone alive today, without reading the history of news, sits on shifting sands when they proclaim the sanctity of news. That is, it cannot, will not, does not, change. From the 1700s Addison and Steel and Daniel De Foe, it did.

David being presented award at the National Press Club in Washington DC for Innovation in Journalism - Knight Batten Awards

Within each generation it has wrestled with the internal machinery, but the system was maintained because it still worked and there were no uppity cheetahs outside of the system that could speak and be heard about the system's failings. There was no Net to disseminate wider understanding. But share a thought for the Italian Futurists at the turn of the 20th century.

They too were cheetahs. We know about their exploits. They made an impact, but it was limited by the power of broadcasting to others.

Imagine if in the 1920s radio became a synchronous communication pathway. It didn't, but imagine it was. It would be a system a bit like the Internet. Where then would have journalism been during its nascent stage of development as an electronic media?

The power of cinema in journalism
In the 1900s Russia influenced by the French launched their industry of cinema. At the beginning, it was factual referred to as topicals and actuality.  When the Russians came across Alphonse Daudet's play L'Ariesienne ( The Girl from Arles), the name of the game changed. It's the early 1900s. Dramatic cinema is about to make a firm play and become an industry in cinema.

Some resist this. In the West the label documentary is about to be born, but the Russians, particularly Vertov stick by cinema - a coming together of emotion and fact.  But it represented a unitary vision of one person - Vertovs. In the West, this was a dangerous premise. The idea of owning a You Tube account, if that were possible in the 1940s was propaganda waiting to happen.

The state needed to control this way of communicating when it could influence many.

In Vetov's world and for a while Alexander Drankhov cinema had little to do with the theatrical plays or dramatising events. The drama of life was cinema. There is a promotion video on the BBC which ends by saying sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

Yes this is cinema par excellence. The ability to take an event and arrange the raw material so it works like drama is something the Russians held to, and that new filmmakers have revived. Can you remember the fuss over Michael Moore's early films when critics argued that the temporality of events had been changed. A followed B followed C had been corrupted so C became As followers and the B emerged.

This was one person's vision. Cinema like art may have a collective behind it, but it is attributable to the the visionary. The visionary listens to a team of experts, but she must give the nod to this collective contribution. We shy away from the word auter and I neither seek to resurrect it, but to say that cinema shares with all those who practice it an authorship, a particular point of  view, is paramount.

When we witnessed the birth of videojournalism, which has many names and idioms, we were embracing the idea of the author and cinema.

I create cinema. Yes I do! I have said this publicly at many events, such as SXSW and the BFI. I don't have to evoke the spirit of Vertov, and neither do I need to align myself with a tradition of documentary making.

I use the visual and the aurality of the event to create something that is factual and objective, but it is my subjectivity. By the way this is not tautology. You can be objective and subjective at the same time and in my lectures I demonstrate this. I maintain my objective position is without rancour or intentional prejudice.

If an elderly woman is crossing the road unaided I will help. I work in an industry whose purpose is to expand our horizons and mind - academia. But I am a practitioner too so these are not airy fairy ideas.

These are foundations by which journalism was shaped or abandoned at will. I can give you 10 reasons why news journalism artificially ditched cinema. It worked then, but does not work now.

And that now needs to be looked at in greater detail. We have entered a period of great understanding. We suppress these ideas at our peril. Or saying that it is time for the cheetahs to leave hippos on the barren plains. The Net in a couple of years will truly expose these faltering lines.

About David
David a lecturer and practitioner in media making and management. He is a chair of jurors at this year's RTS Awards. He completes his PhD next year in future media. He has 26 years media experience working for some of the world's leading media. Find out more on his website