Saturday, May 03, 2014

Perugia's inimitable journalism festival - Why you need to be there

Perugia - tucked in the clouds
Just what is it that has made a journalism festival tucked away between Rome and Florence, situated on a hilltop, a must-go-to festival?

Perugia's cultural resonance - art, paintings, and architecture - is explicit on arrival. The town appears as an interconnected canvas bridging a kaleidoscope of frescos.  Unsurprising when you read its history.

To the odd news hound, this rustic town is where a contemporary mystery has brought into sharp focus the legal systems of the US and Italy. That is the unsolved murder of British student Meredith Kercher.

On my way to Perugia, after a 2-hour plane journey from Stanstead, I share a taxi with two behemoth speakers, Fusion's Felix Salmon and Joanna Geary, head of news Twitter UK.

Felix suggests if you're going to stage a festival, the more the location is as far removed from a city, the better. Attendants become absorbed in the area, with little 'city-like' external distractions. 

David presenting at SXSW
Utah, where Sundance stages its film festival, conjures up images of canyons and dust devils; SXSW where I have spoken transforms Austin, Texas, into one giant tech jamboree, and Perugia?

Perugia, if you love retreats, is an idyllic busman's holiday. It's compact, facilitating active mingling between delegates, and the speakers and the audience.   

In a relatively short space of time, the festival's indomitable driving force Christopher and Francesca ( and their staff)  have created a phenomenon. 

It's intriguing to know how the idea came about and then sold to the town, because it is now a cultural event with shops, restaurants and the tourism center playing their part. 

Notwithstanding the influx of international journalists, students and free-to-attend sessions for the public, in the short space I was there, it was obvious Perugia is also a cultural tourism hot spot.

Coaches arrive and offload swathes of tourists; yesterday was labour day and the evening was capped with a pop concert.

Videojournalism talk
Scores of sessions addressing a wide range of journalism topics makes Perugia's event a physical wikipedia.  My talk was one of the earliest presentations and because of that I had little idea how many people would attend. It was billed as New Narratives in Videojournalism - a title designed to provoke curiosity.

Fortunately, we had a good turn out. I'm thankful to @journalismfestival for all their hard work and all those who spent their time listening and contributing to the debate. 

I made this a day later to add further context cinema journalism.

Though the listing shows Marwan and I as presenters, Marwan graciously allowed me the bulk of the time to present my thesis. He would be at the heart of a presentation the following day giving inside expertise on Syria. 

The heart of my talk, which is an element of my PhD thesis is that the 60-year old TV/Video news model is not quite up to the job for reporting various events in the 21st century. 

Newspapers have reformed, and adjusted to the times. In the 60s faced with the arrival of television, print journalism adopted a range of tropes. It couldn't compete with the immediacy of television news, so contextual and commentary reportage became a dominant part of its journalism.

Language evolves, as societies and cultures grow.

Amazingly, television news' lingua franca has not changed very much. These aren't my words, but that of  industry leaders I interviewed during my research, such as Deborah Turness, one of the world's most powerful news executives


Play the promo to hear what industry leaders say about news' story form.

My presentation spoke about the methodology of my research. I have worked in the TV News and Radio  since 1990 and on the net since 1998.

Hence, I used my own journey as a research thread called autoethnography / reflective practitioner. I have been with a slew of organisations that challenged journalism styles e.g. Channel 4 News, BBC Newsight and BBC Reportage. Below, I'm reporting from South Africa's landmark elections in 1994.

Reporting from South Africa between 1992-1994

But I also used ethnography, that is studying in-depth two communities: Britain's first videojournalists and some of the world's best videojournalists.  This was then critiqued using expert opinion; some of those figures seen in the trailer, as well as using a wide array of literature.

Cinema journalism, but not as you know it - perhaps
Cinema, the new language of news
The essence of my talk was that cinema, not cinematic, but cinema was enriching journalism when used by key news makers. It doesn't replace current narrative journalism forms, but evidence shows the audience are drawn to it.

Cinema, I explained was first coined to mean factual constructions of events. It was Hollywood that hijacked the term to denote fiction. But even in its modern parlance, fictional film tropes and cues used ethically can enrich a film, while still retaining its journalism.

I showed one of several examples I researched, which included in their report of the event. Often experts state the difference between newspaper videojournalism and Television is how newspapers have co-opted the cinema verite approach.

I disagree. This may appear so because a large number of newspaper videojournalists use cinema verite, but in principle this division is an artificial one. 

I helped set up and run the UK's Press Association's videojournalism programme and often the reason why newspapers did not voice their reports was that they were self-conscious of their own voice. 

Former Washington Post videojournalist Travis Fox's piece, you'll find in the report, is a voiced piece. Something more interesting is going on which explores the complexities of cinema.

Complexities because unlike television news' language, cinema, as the scores of books, 8000 plus in English, show cinema is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.

Or should that be, my research with audiences demonstrates they can tell the difference between cinema fact and cinema fiction. 

Cinema does not also exclusively imply linear narrative. It can also reference spatial story forms, which is why the web and html is a suitable medium to revive cinema's early incarnation.

This image below shows on the left a zoetrope from the 19th century, while on the right, the cube, my spatial cinema narrative on graduates being recruited the CIA

Similarly, the Outernet, which was displayed on Apple's site for several years is also an indication of where we're going.

The recording of our presentation will be online soon, so you can see what you make of the rhetorical arguments I pose.

But there are wider significant points. Cinema is agnostic to platforms and linear forms, so whether you're a data journalist or social media boffin truly understanding what cinema can do, is worth exploring. 

However, if, as my research shows cinema is a tour de force and the use of 'cinema' here alludes to 21st century styles, then the way we teach journalism generally and videojournalism in particular requires attention.

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David Dunkley Gyimah is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster, artist-in-residence at London's Southbank Centre and videojournalist and coder. He is next speaking at the British Film Institutes Media Conference