Sunday, November 27, 2016

An #EpicFail in Journalism and what ways can we fix it.

In  2005 I won one of the US’ most coveted prizes for innovation in journalism, The Knight Batten Award, deeply respected by American J-schools and established international newspapers and broadcasters alike. A year later it was followed by the International Videojournalism Award — the Emmys for one-man bands.
 To say I was a nobody is not to denigrate myself but to say I did not have any special privileges, contacts or circumstances that I could depend upon. My parents, Ghanaians, worked in various factories when we lived in the UK. I’m British and in my teens was sent back to school in Ghana. Challenging!
With the Batten Awards I was that proverbial one man and his dog, except I didn’t own a canine. I did however work tirelessly for months to perfect an idea. How could I get my content and those of my exemplars on the Net in ways that it could be enjoyed in different ways?
I’d built my first web site in 1998 but websites at that time were turgid to say the least. A magazine, rather than a blog, was the answer. I read glossies like US GQ growing up in Ghana and admired their layout, articles and striking photos. But in the Net age, I had a larger ambition, videos would be the killer app.
The rub? YouTube had not yet been born, so relying on software called Flash and mark up language in HTML/CSS, I conceived a site,
The video stories had to be exceptional, I told myself. Again, the one-man band ethos would be my blanket. Video production cost was a small fortune then as the industry believed in a division of labour: directors, camera operators, producers and the rest to make a video.
A waste of resources, I thought. Moreover, I’d been schooled in the art of videojournalism ( a misunderstood term) in the 90s. That would do. It did and the judges quote attest to this.
But, here’s what’s bothering me today the day after the biggest shock to US politics in a while. Across America, and several territories, the question is being asked about journalism’s epic failure in not seeing the greatest presidential upset ever, Trump’s victory.
The same question was asked in the UK with #Brexit. Journalism and the pollsters did not see it coming. So what seems to be the problem? In the meantime, a short detour in journalism’s other failings in context.
History forgotten
Trump’s shock win as the only tremor in political history deserves context. In 1948, the election of America’s 41st president Harry Truman was truly seismic. Truman was not supposed to win against the populist Republican Thomas Dewey.
At 5.6 ft, Truman had what critics referred to as a small-size man complex. His negotiating style was testy. On a number of occasions on foreign policy negotiations he threatened to drop the big one (nukes) on his adversaries. He did on Japan.
Astutely connecting to rural communities akin to today’s Trump play, Truman was in contrast to Trump a feisty liberal who supported African American rights.
However, three year’s earlier in one of the biggest u-turns in the Democrats, the party dropped a liberal and widely-loved politician by grass root members called Henry Wallace to make Truman President Roosevelt’s running mate.
Yesterday, history was reclaiming its clothes. The democrats machinery coming into sharp focus with shades of “Bernie would have won this”. But at least it was the Democrats then that triumphed.
As a journalist and more so a social scientist there are many reasons you could attribute to the failure of traditional media.
  • Treating Trump as entertainment.
  • Journalists being misdirected and as such concentrating on values that were about character, rather than issues relating to jobs and the economy.
  • Print journalism has been in decline and so it was inevitable that journalists couldn’t cover wider issues in depth.
  • Data analyst and pollsters got it wrong. If you’re an ethnographer, you’ll have lots to say here. I have a double whammy, I grew up on data completing a degree in Chemistry and Mathematics.
Rachel Oldroyd from the Bureau of Investigation poignantly covers a number of reasons in an expansive article. This morning, as I was writing this post listening to BBC radio’s Today programme, one of the UK’s most respected journalists Harry Evans captured piquantly what I too believe.Journalists needed to connect with people in the rural heartlands, they needed to physically speak to the disenfranchised, rather than the politicos.
Here’s my take which in my framing focuses on broader thoughts. I’m certain you’ll have your own that encompass a spectrum of ideas from the FBI, DNC, PR driven news, to deeper diversity than discussed here. (Please see comments for the deep feedback writers have made).
I believe one of the reasons I won the Knight Batten was because of the diversity of stories I covered and that the source of those came from someone who knew their constituents whom are rarely seen or heard.
When was the last time you saw Billy Joe in a studio, or expressing his thoughts beyond the 10 second soundbite?
In reading into this, I’m not saying journalism failed because it did not hire more black journalists. Trump supporters, it’s becoming clear, spanned different ages, incomes and demographics. What I am saying is that journalists who come from, have resided in, demonstrated an empathy for, or understanding of people of diverse background are invaluable.
J.D. Vance, author of the New York Times best seller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis exemplifies this too. Vance, white, grew up poor in a rust belt. Through unimaginable struggles he made it as a Marine and then Yale to study law but as his book demonstrates Vance understands the blue collar and dust bowl environment he grew up in.
Diversity is often seen as a nod or wink to a growing chorus of liberals demanding change because of inequalities. In the 90s, in a bid to become a reporter you were made to feel broadcasters were doing you a favour. To paraphrase the hit comedy Little Britain, you were the only black in the parish. I speak from experience.
In 2000, diversity garnered attention as overtly political with the perception change was PC and needed to be resisted, to some too it had developed into a industry (ceo + friends) to exploit.
Then, strategic reasons in a multitude of professions emerged. When I interviewed a former head of the CIA, James Woolsey, he was matter of fact about it. In essence, he said, we need people of diverse backgrounds (anything you could think of) to work, infiltrate the networks that we anglo-saxon protestants can’t.

In many fields of work change is still gradual but in journalism, and education, specifically university tenures, it’s snail pace. These two industries which I know well, and I acknowledge there are others, are still generally perceived as the preserve of a liberal elite class.
There are signs of encouragement. In Leicester, Channel 4’s Head of News Dorothy Byrne launched a Channel 4 News investigative 1-year Masters programme. Byrne chose Leicester because of its diversity and has been a champion of change for many years. At Westminster, we’ve demonstrated various strategies e.g. Fiona McDiarmid Fund. But across many universities and journalism organisations too little is being done.
Within journalism storytelling, diversity of people and views makes a difference. Here, whilst I’m focusing on an aspect, it doesn’t negate the wider understanding of diversity. I can tell you stories of palpable concerns driving in a hired sports car, wired for video and sound as we tested police stop and search laws, or reporting from the borders of Syria where the need to blend in was crucial.
When I once interviewed one of South Africa’s most infamous state assassins (below), there was a sense that me, who I am as a black man, British, and at the time freelancing for the BBC, generated the most extraordinary answers.
British viewers might recall the uncomfortable but compelling viewing when black journalist Trevor Phillips interviewed Norman Tebbit, asking whether the Conservative MP would mind if he, a son of immigrants, lived next door to Tebbit.
We may learn to do all these things tech, but how we think and who you are matters in the interpretation of events. I demonstrate this in my lectures between the Anglo-saxon’s view of the past and the Chinese and African’s relationship with time. Myth, culture and non-verbal language underpin social semiotics.
To my journalism students as I unpack philosophers Descartes, Berkley, Hume and Kant, I remind them that there’s a lot in the craft of journalism I’ll share but that their existential self (who they are) frames how they’ll interpret events and the world.
Our cognitive process and memories shape us. They provide us with a framework and recognition of what it feels to be us. And if inclusivity is truly a matrix for democracy, then I trust my MA students get more than an understanding of journalism through my hybrid western upbringing. Here’s a short vid of them after a coding course and me taking them to Google.
 As a story teller I fleetingly move from one spectrum of my identity to the other side of my acquired persona through my upbringing. Personality ( a usb stick of memory, environment, thought, dreams) matters as one my attendants at a videojournalism conference in Egypt recognised.
It’s not enough too to wear the notion of diversity on your arm — a believer when your own staff are bereft of diverse backgrounds. Last year, the Royal Television Society’s judging committee made a strong affirmant to this in appointing more diverse jurors to their panels.
Trump and Brexit’s presence demands the need for a greater understanding of people who feel forgotten, white and black. It urges those in power to also challenge crass perceptions. When British blacks are asked to go back home - post #Brexit, it is ignorance of a cataclysmically scale from the journalism class to cite Windrush in 1960s as the index for black’s longstanding presence in the UK, when Black people have had a large presence in the UK since the 1600s.
The lesson for journalism is to move out of a developing recycled era of air-conditioned journalism where copy has never tasted the dry speckled air and where ethnographic writers are met by the forcefulness of raw dialect and ideas. Hint: if you’re in J-school and you haven’t spent an evening in a village talking to strangers demand you do.
We must seek to eliminate parachute journalism, where scribes busk out on local knowledge and fail to understand the very people, from different walks of life, they’re reporting on. If anything, journalism could learn a thing or two from critical methodologies deployed in PhD practises in which ethnographer’s mine qualitative data and unveil patterns of rich, meaningful, nuanced contextual text.
As I look to my colleagues launching the Digital Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster, a fresh way of sharing and interacting with students in storytelling, it’s my hope I can play a part in addressing how journalism could benefit from the wide experience of diversity.
There’s nothing inordinately mysterious about journalism, as Citizen Journalists would reveal. In all walks of life there’s a spectrum of the brilliant and poor, of good and bad writers but journalism sees itself as privileged when what truly matters is you and the difference you bring to reportage. Your identity shaped by memory, upbringing, knowledge and diversity greatly impact your interpretation of events and for the audience.
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