For a long time, journalism was untouchable.
The “Fourth Estate”, tasked with holding the powers that are (or would be?) accountable, had grown used to the idea of holding the reins in place – at a time when ad spend for print media was still lucrative enough for even regional newspapers to employ foreign correspondents, media practitioners were undoubtedly the kings of the communications sphere.
During the so-called “Golden Age of Journalism”, commonly associated with the time span ranging from the 1940’s to the 1980’s, which saw the dawn of Watergate, the Civil Rights struggle as well as the Vietnam War, amongst other prominent events, the journalist was both the daring gun-slinger, daring to tread where no one else would go, and the lovable rogue with his secret recorder and ubiquitous Moleskin pad – a figure that approached mythical proportions.
But even a myth can grow stale after the thousandth retelling.
These days, with “fake news” being on the lips of prominent right-wing politicians across the western world, the reputation of “hacks” is nowhere near the one professionals in the industry used to enjoy in bygone days. Trust in the media is at a record low, and, in many cases, resignation has set in. Of course, media outlets still brave the fight and publish the stories an audience may not necessarily want to hear but should be informed on, according to the classic adage propagated by Kovach and Rosenstiel decades ago, but a certain defensiveness has crept in, especially with regards to legacy media.
Yet what many fail to see is that herein lies the key to the imminent crisis.
Instead of hankering for the old days, when a journalist was still a hero or saviour of sorts, who purported to be neutral and objective at all costs in order to expose wrongdoing and ensure justice, it’s time to face the music – in an era where a prominent head of state gets to abuse media practitioners both verbally and physically, accuse them of espionage and, most recently, claim that mainstream media does not ensure the propagation of free speech, the old rules just don’t apply anymore.
At a time where right wing blogs such as Breitbart or bogus posts on Facebook threaten to have a larger reach than established outlets such as the BBC or The Guardian, the idea of objectivity itself needs to be questioned. The construct itself has been criticised over the years, seeing as from the process of selection to the actual production of news stories, intrinsic value judgements of reporters have always come into play, regardless of intention. (In fact, attempts to correct bias in newsrooms via hiring of more diverse staff are just one example in which people try to balance said tenet of objectivity.)
Nieman Lab, a Harvard based foundation investigating future models of journalism, states that we are currently facing the same “battle over objectivity” that the media was confronted with during the Nixon era. At the time, efforts of the then administration to discredit journalists spurred some to call for a more transparent approach, with the aim being to drop the semblance of objectivity and acknowledge the open truth, an idea which was rejected by major TV networks at the time.
I chose to study Digital Storytelling because I wanted to be a part of the next wave in journalism-emotive storytelling. By encountering researchers from MIT Media Lab, dabbling in advertising and getting to experience the rise of narrative fictional podcasts on a first-hand basis, I’ve been struck by the growing willingness of at least some parties to leave behind the model of fact based journalism, originally developed by newspaper owners not out of some high flung ideal to tell the truth but to cater to advertisers who wished to reach readers of opposing opinions at the same time.
Maybe we can’t resurrect the journalist in all his glory, but what we can do is reinvigorate the profession.
As someone who does not just purport to the tell the truth, but is also not afraid to break the fourth wall by letting the viewer access full footage of an interview as the BBC did in their recent VR drama, “Damming the Nile”.
As someone who does not follow a model of objectivity that never existed, especially in the era of big business interests, but contains all the “dissent, self-critique and out of the ordinary” (Gyimah, 2019) that’s usually edited out to present a “wholesome picture”.
Let Storytelling begin!