The “New” New Journalism

26Jun14

When I first entered college many years ago, I had dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter or editor. This was before I became really serious about photography. I had been the editor of my high school newspaper and thought of journalism as a noble pursuit—a worthy way to use my writing and editing skills for the greater good.

That may sound corny and old-fashioned, but ideas about journalism and the mass media were a bit different back then. Memories of the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation were still fresh in people’s minds. Determined journalists, the seekers of truth, had exposed the corruption that brought those crimes to light. A few years before that, I watched as Walter Cronkite, displaying rare emotion, removed his eyeglasses, shook his head, and exclaimed, “Boy!” when the Apollo 11 lunar module landed on the moon’s surface. A few years before that, he had also removed his eyeglasses, briefly breaking eye contact with his TV audience while informing the nation of the loss of its 35th President. He then paused for a moment of deafening silence, put his glasses back on, and continued broadcasting in his calm, dispassionate manner.

Back then, there was no Internet, no cable television, and only three major TV networks. Most folks got their news from the national networks, their local newspapers and radio broadcasts. Correctly or incorrectly, people tended to believe what was in the papers and on the broadcast news—it was assumed that the reporters, editors, photographers, filmmakers and producers were honest, objective professionals attempting to present the clearest, most accurate picture of current events.

These rigid notions of objectivity, balance and detachment on the part of news reporters were being challenged just as I was getting into my first reporting course at St. Cloud State University.

My professor in that course was an admirer and proponent of what was called “The New Journalism.” This was a more literary “author-involved” style of journalistic writing popularized by the works of such writers as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Hunter Thompson.

The techniques of New Journalism were diametrically opposed to the rules of “old” journalism. New journalism was often subjective rather than objective; the writer’s ideas and opinions often made their way into the story. The idea of the reporter’s detachment was also rejected—the reporter’s immersion in the story was in fact part of the story itself.In New Journalism, the writer’s involvement in the story coupled with his or her own ideas and opinions produced an emphasis of “truth over facts.”

These notions were anathema to my other journalism professor, a fellow right out of Central Casting. He was ex-military, ex-newspaper, and seemed to be a cross between television’s Lou Grant character and a Marine Corps drill sergeant. He had a booming voice, a flat-top haircut, and terrified most of his greenhorn students. He referred to himself as The Filter—if we wanted to become professional journalists, we would have to get through him.

His style of journalism was old-school all the way. Reporters and editors worked with facts, the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW information. They were supposed to use these facts to clearly and objectively explain things to the reader. Opinions were for the editorial page. Journalism’s highest duty was to provide the public with objective, balanced coverage of the known facts so that citizens could be informed about their world and form their own opinions and positions in a “marketplace of ideas.”

At my school, the traditional ideas won out. The professor who advocated for New Journalism was gone the next year and students were faced with getting through The Filter if they wanted become reporters.

About that time, I changed course, shifting from news/editorial to the advertising/public relations track within the mass communications department. Photography became more important to me than writing, and I figured that there was more creative freedom (and more money to be made) in the advertising photography business.

New Journalism didn’t succeed at my university, but it didn’t go away. You see its effects everywhere: The rise of “celebrity journalists,” the steady creep of subjectivity into news broadcasts, the increasing prevalence of “puff pieces” centered on participatory journalism, and feature stories replacing what used to be called “hard news.”

I keep hearing echos of what The Filter said about the need for an informed citizenry. To me, things have taken the path towards “more broadcasting—less information.”

And it’s getting worse.

Today, people have the ability to gather information as never before. Digital technology has made it possible to record audio, still and motion picture information at little or no cost, and devices such as today’s smartphones and tablets, coupled with internet connectivity, make it possible for anyone to be a sort of one-person news broadcaster.

We’ve seen the results. We’re inundated by Twitter feeds, thousands of blogs (like this one!) and innumerable YouTube videos. It’s sometimes mildly entertaining and at worst it’s usually just harmless junk.

Mostly, it’s cheap, and that can have very negative consequences.

Armies of volunteer “citizen journalists” wielding cameraphones can “cover” the news at a much lower cost than professionals. This has attracted the attention of large, traditional publishing and broadcasting companies looking to get more material on the air or online while saving money.

Recording Is Not Reporting

But not everyone recording video with their iPhone is a journalist. Here’s a case in point:

I recently watched a perplexing news story streamed from the internet to my television set via my Roku media player. It was about a demonstration in London by professional taxicab drivers. They had created a massive traffic jam in the city to protest the introduction of the Uber smartphone app to the United Kingdom.

The news segment was mostly silent, just video shots of snarled traffic and backed-up cars. Then, a couple of “interviews,” soundbites of angry cabbies expressing their desire to keep Uber out of London, followed by a couple of sentences from an Uber spokesperson promoting their business. No narration, no reporter on camera. That was it.

Confused? I was, not knowing what the heck Uber was supposed to be. Further investigation revealed that Uber is a car-hailing smartphone application that allows users to request what are essentially private taxicabs. Metering is done by the app on the user’s phone, not by a traditional taxicab meter, and the payment is made via the app using the customer’s credit card information with no tipping unless the rider decides to tip the driver with cash. No wonder the London cabbies were steamed.

That’s why the video segment failed as journalism. It failed most of the criteria that my old college professor had set as the standard for news reporting. It presented visuals without explanation, didn’t identify the underlying conflict and its primary players, and failed to explain to the audience WHO Uber was, WHAT it did, and exactly WHY the cabbies were angry. In the end, it was more or less “found video,” with some people talking about some unrevealed concern. The audience, unless they’re already up to speed on Uber and its activities, learns nothing and understands nothing.

Now this wasn’t someone’s blog, YouTube video or podcast. This was NBC’s news channel on Roku.

NBC. The one with the peacock. Brinkley and Huntley, remember? This is one of the biggest of the big guys, and they’re running quite a bit of stuff like this these days.

It’s The “New” New Journalism, or, to me, a sort of cut-rate “non-journalism.” My old professor would be quick to point out (emphatically) that recording is not reporting, and that material presented without explanation or context is little more than noise, which is already depressingly abundant in our world of 24-hour news channels and countless “pseudo news” outlets on the Internet.

But I’d guess that it’s less expensive than real journalism, which is why we’re seeing more and more of it. That’s a shame, because all we’ll end up with is more video, more pictures, less explanation, less understanding.

More noise.

A less-informed citizenry.

I hope that real journalism can survive this “cheaper must be better” mentality that’s so prevalent these days. People need real news, stories worked on by trained reporters, checked and edited by skilled editors and producers to create real understanding of the events of the day. People should demand it. If not, perhaps one day the New York Times will change its motto from “All the News That’s Fit to Print” to “You Figure it Out.”

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One Response to “The “New” New Journalism”

  1. 1 Dean Severson

    Well said.
    I find that nowadays you have to actively seek out the news stories to get any depth… which unfortunately, also leads to filtering based on ones own view of the world. A lot of what passes as news turns out to be ‘click-bait’ for commentators or pseudo-journalists who make more money with more clicks.


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