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Saturday, 15 June 2013

Critical distance and subjectivity in journalism

Dave Cohn in a piece about making news creatively invokes tropes from disciplines outside of media practice to try to find a way to address Jay Rosen's "wicked problems" challenge. Cohn, who has ties to a media startup called Circa, has his own angles that are centred on what that outfit is doing, but he makes a stab at stepping back from what we know as news in an effort to suggest ways to improve it. It's not surprising. Structural changes in news delivery and monetisation have caused the media to experience a kind of existential crisis. Rosen, moreover, has the luxury of being able to spend a lot of time musing on how to fix the problem of declining revenues, but his "wicked problems" thing has struck a chord with many. It may well be that a new approach is necessary, and it may be that "modelling the world" rather than just reflecting the way it looks, using the (flawed) ideal of objectivity, is the answer.

To step back, Cohn invokes Hunter Thompson, a legandary innovator and one of those raggedy-assed American vagabonds - like Melville, Emerson, Whitman, Steinbeck - who spent their 40 days and nights in the wilderness in an effort to find the critical distance that would allow them to "model the world" in a new way, a way that would make other people sit up and pay attention. Thompson, for his part, spent years wandering around the US and the Caribbean writing straight news in a way inspired by Steinbeck, and also writing bad novels. Thompson's breakthrough came as a reaction to putatively objective journalism, and so instead of worrying the same tired anxieties about motorcycle gangs that the mainstream had been mechanically doing for years, he immersed himself in the bikie culture and included himself as part of the story. The Gonzo method was born. It was born of a feeling of disgust at the status quo, much as Rosen's "wicked problems" idea was born. (The picture accompanying this blogpost shows a young Hunter Thomspon on a motorcycle: is that Big Sur? Hey Hunter, where's Henry Miller, where's Kerouac?)

The problem with immersive journalism is it's expensive and it takes a long time to do. But it's still possible. Look at Michael Hasting's The Operators or any of the hilarious books by Jon Ronson. In both cases, there's passion and there's the author centre stage like a movie voiceover helping the reader to make sense of what's happening by not just giving the facts but talking about the way those facts look, in a subjective sense. But it's an American innovation, the New Journalism - where Gonzo fits in - where keen young blades like Tom Wolfe went out into the broad community looking for new angles, and delivering their stories in a way that rejected the impossible objective ideal. No surprise that Wolfe now writes novels to allow him to get on top of those "wicked problems" like race relations in Florida (Back to Blood, his latest). There's a lot more that could be said about the superior honesty of subjective reporting, and about the privileging of the individual - in which French impressionism was just part of a long, historical process, as was the Declaration of Independence - as opposed to abstract ideas and the institutions that used them to maintain power in society.

It could be said, for example, that objectivity is an abstract idea that is exploited by those with power to manipulate public debates for selfish reasons. It can also be said that objectivity belongs to a past era when large, monopolistic newspaper companies tried to accommodate the entirety of the metropolitan readership by being "objective". On the other hand, objectivity has a long and glorious pedigree especially in the physical sciences, and has materially influenced the modern world, just as the idea of "service" first employed by the Catholic church led to the emergence of representative government and honest politics.

For the moment, I want to look at one of the examples that Cohn uses: the gun-control issue. This is the kind of issue that gets highly politicised, like climate change, in which process there is no longer any value in so-called objectivity since the "he said, she said" style of reporting that journalists use in order to maintain the fiction of objectivity fails dismally. Gun control is however the kind of issue that cannot be tackled by focusing exclusively on the US and debates in the US. There's a reason why those raggedy-assed vagabonds like Melville, Emerson, Whitman and Thomspon left the comfortable confines of metropolitan USA in search of critical distance. And if you want to tackle the gun control issue you desperately need critical distance. Whether this involves time-consuming, expensive but excellent immersive journalism is one thing. What it must include, however, is at least an objective survey of what's happening overseas. Americans cannot fix the problem of gun control alone. They need help, and sticking to the "all news is local" mantra is just going to get in the way. Stepping outside: now that's how to find objectivity.

1 comment:

Glen said...

Great post. H.S. Thompson was one of the earliest ejournalists of the new era filing his stories with a fax machines that he hauled around on the campaign trail. Shortened his time to publication considerably.