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.
FF me on Twitter @viewmagazine for similar stories.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

After Thoughts - How I became you

I am you.

I am you who stares at the elegance of other's writings and beauty of their messages and wonders?

I am the you who seeks knowledge to understand systems and processess. Why and what makes people satisfied and hurt.

I am you.

I am you who despairs at times about my personal circumstances and considers how I might
surmount life's interminable hurdles.

I am you, striving to do the right thing at the right time but acknowledges I am infaliable.

I am lost, I am unseen, I am an unknown. When I was ten, I was whisked away to a foreign country.

Foreign, because I knew nothing of its history before I arrived and stayed eight years becoming a full integrated citizen.

For years we endured the abuse of an alt. matriach, who took away our needs.  I am you in the memories you reflux about the schisms in your family.

My sisters often joke that we should by now all be under therapy for what we endured.
It culmiated in an event for which my family attracted international news. The first ever family in the world to undergo DNA genetic finger printing.

Those circumstances mirror events you've been through and feel there is no escape.

I am so you.

I am you when through companionship, we rebuilt. I am you when you dreamt there had to be another way. I am you when I felt satisfied and wondered how long it would last.

Then I became someone else and wanted to find me, you, again.

I teach now. I teach MA and PhDs. I teach because inside all of us the same needs exist. I am you trying to share with others. I am me in you ensuring that what ever I can do to enrich the next generation, you, me, do our best.

And if I could do all this, it would not have to be an Afterthougt. Be Us.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Westworld’s future sees beyond VR and 360 — a lesson for journalism

Artists have a way of reading the future. Da Vinci on air travel, Poet William Blake prefiguring Einstein’s space-time continuum. Here, a set of uber Hollywood moguls side step our current fixation for VR and 360 degree films for the future’s heir.
The future isn’t virtual, it’s real — in a way that our senses deal with objects in this perspectival ecosystem. No goggles, no perceived hyper-real. No, the future is advanced AI animatronic kinaesthetically programmed to be cognisant of their surroundings to please their guests.
This isn’t a new idea. J.J Abrams, and husband and wife team Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (brother of Inception creator Chris Nolan) have rebooted a franchise. The original #Westworld was directed by sci-fi exemplar Michael Crichton in 1973 staring a moody Yul Brynner.
Its theme, as now, re-presents wealthy guests paying to be immersed in a world contrived along the lines of Jason and the Argonauts(1963), where human engineers play gods looking down on their creations and tourists indulge themselves by sleeping with prostitutes and murdering the hosts — human’s greatest flaw and fantasised pleasure become the ultimate theme parks offerings.
Technology to foresee the future infects many of us. Jules Verne may be ordained as conceiving science fi-action but you only need to look at 14th Century Dante’s inferno to realise the artists’ mind at work back then, and further back still with homo sapien’s opus dei of all technologies, the alphabet.
Westworld trades of another asset, the greatest underrated technology of them all, memories. By its repetitive return to the origins of a scene, we witness our own freudian expositions. That moment in your sleep when you keep returning to the same location, again, and again, and again. This phenomenological experience is one of the least understood, but one of the most explosive.
Everything we do is instantiated by memory. Even knowledge must play second fiddle. Without memory you are a tabula rasa. Memory shapes our being, whether direct or prosthetic (derived from television). The artist through intuition, a break in conventional knowns, is able to hot wire their synaptic pathways to glimpse worlds beyond what could have been recollected.
The future is often always skewed. In Westworld, as with Star Trek, black people are a deficit in mnemonics. The future sees them still as an under represented people — that is a shame even if Tandie Newton’s character is impressive.
Slide into Netflix and Sense8 is truly global and feasts on diversity and multiculturism. Each diverse character brings inordinate strengths, some physical as Van Damme (a black guy) often harnesses the power of his Chinese martial arts sense 8.
Journalism’s obsession
Author playing with drones and the concept of simulation theory
The future fascinates journalism, or should I say its new scions. It’s as if journalism is missing a spare unknown limb or that Einstein’s 4th dimension has finally awoken the journalism fraternity and they’re on the hunt for it.
I’ve been involved in that excursion but am cautious, paradoxically that as a technologist the future of journalism is so bound by hardware that race and culture appear benign at best, inconsequential at worst but that’s exactly where we should be focusing our efforts.
‘What will help journalism?’ is a perennial mantra. However, we can’t bare to remove ourselves from the idea that a traditional way of seeing the world is in decay. You may disagree with movements such as #Blacklivesmatter but the lens in which they see the world has long been ignored. Isn’t one of journalism’s feats to understand and explain?
Journalism, a construct, has 300 years plus form, and in those years has changed, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes with great strides. Yet often we forget that one of its main tributaries, news, is conceptual. Yes that’s right unlike the square root of four, which is fixed, news isn’t.
Events occur, which we deign as news and then detach a group of professionals equipped with 20th century thinking processes to make sense of the world. We equip them with a skill set and tools, but rarely do we explore ourselves — the Descartian ‘I’.
In Westworld’s conceived realities, if they ever introduced a reporter into the plot their metrics would be made visible on the screen — a matter of public record. Who you vote for, your upbringing, your likes likes and dislikes are forged by mnemonics. You’ve never taken an interest to report on some issues because they’re not integral to your memory system to make you care about them.
What’s made journalism so removed from the everyday is the many practitioners don’t reside in the everyday of others.
This thing called journalism seeks to construct a compressed delineation of events over space and time into 2.20 seconds. It has been brilliant. When CBS and NBC conceived of its form, followed by the BBC, it would upend documentary. Now, there was a way of telling people ‘summaries’.
Its brilliance was also its predictability. This is where Westworld’s engineers trip up in the series. Everything appears right at a time and place until society moves on, or glitches become malfunctions. In Westworld bad things are about to happen. In real world they already have time and time again, with the construct attempting sate our appetite for human endeavour but offering quite often little intrinsic insight into problem-solving.
Art, architecture, design, medicine, engineering have all sought alternative addresses towards comprehending a world that evolves, driven by the white heat of technology. Mainstream video journalism, even with its technology remains epistemologically rooted in its traditions. You’re inclined to think, Journalism, the art of understanding the world is far too important to be left to traditional journalism. We have been made to view one reality.
No one has a claim on the our perceptions, yet in the 1990s when 29 young journalists and I picked up a camera and were told to go and shoot news, without the support of a producer, reporter or director, we bored into journalism’s construct to find its inadequacies.
We found that, not all events command the same formula. We found out that because that formula was well known, PR and liars had a way of goading journalists, of forcing their hands to adopt their points of view. Whatever journalism’s ideals were, it became enslaved to the dark forces. Journalism’s reboot may require technology but it is also a philosophical calibration.
Cut to ten years later and that innovation makes more sense now than it did back then. What was creative then has purpose now. Journalism, the art of attempting to represent events that invariably have happened, got its reboot but from an unlikely source — the impressionists and expressionists.
If the impressionists want to bring you their interpretation of the world as seen through their critical eye, the expressionists also discarded the conventions fixed by grey men, in order to shock our senses. Journalism, to a group of videojournalists, became a substrate and a canvas for its audience to see events that needed to be memorable and expressive while they unpicked the thread of a forced realism of causality.
Just because that event happens doesn’t automatically mean that one over there is affected. We humans tie them together to form our narrative. Back in the 1940s, with all due respect to that generation, broadcasters having found their elixir deemed us (the audience) too stupid to understand its complex methods. BY the way that’s factual — a statement by the BBC Director General — , so matters had to be simplified.
Realistic painting post renaissance became the line to hang a fresh way of seeing things. The world as seen in scientific perspective replicated by Jean ingress’ photo-realism art e.g. The Valpinçon Bathert in 1808 testifies to a brilliance which was becoming passe.
When Monet presented “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe in 1863, he was scorned by the experts, His approach abrogated every tenant of classical painting, such as perspective and form. It would take 30–40 years for impressionism to be truly appreciated by the populace and to understand how it inflected our senses
Westworld provides us with food for thought for the next gen, whilst memories, impressionism, and expressionism provide a window to seeing a new order of the day but we won’t take it!

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah heads up the interfactual lab at the University of Westminster exploring new forms of digital stories. He combines his background as an applied chemistry, with 27 years of working in top flight journalism and interactivity, with post doctorate research into memory, behaviour and story forms

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I’m talking to you but you’re not listening  - from Chicago, Cairo to China with Stories

The queue (or line) was six people deep. It was a hot day stepping into a store, somewhere south of Austin Texas.
Can I have some water please?
What?, says the sale assistant.
Water! Can I have some water please?
What ?, she jerks her head back perhaps wondering “What the hell is ‘water’?”
Then a man pushes from the back of the queue towards the cashier. ‘For Christ sake give the man some water!’, except water emerges as ‘waarler’ to supposedly my pronunciation, ‘worter’ which presumably sounds like a wild pig. And yes what would a wild pig be doing in a convenience store?
There must be nothing more disconcerting than to have a black man speak English, sounding like he works for the BBC World Service in the 1990s. I know. Back in 1992 a couple of South African farmers I was interviewing thought my accent highly amusing, before they turned on me stating I was responsible for concentration camps in the South African (Boer) war.
However this isn’t about accents. In India, I’d been walked to my hotel room. It was nothing I’d ever seen; sumptuous, dripping in the recreation of 18th or is that 19th century stately opulence. My accomplice had noted my starry eyed look and so went for the complimentary-feedback comment.
So how do you like your room sir?
Without a heart beat between his ‘Sir” and my response, I replied.
I hadn’t noticed but a day later I was told he was crestfallen and had reported to the hotel management that I was mortified. It would take several evenings and the help of others to explain that Brits have a habit of being deprecating saying the opposite of what they generally mean. Yes, it’s baffling to many people too.
My Chinese host in Chongqing was clear, even though, er, I don’t drink. We will have Sake this evening followed by singing (karaoke) but first my manager will extend his hospitality by us visiting a foot masseur. He will give you his card. Please study it.
I did. For roughly I minute I held the card between the pincers of both thumbs and index finger making observations about the typeface and my host’s name before placing it delicately in my wallet. I then gave him mine. He did the same.
Very good said my translator later. The evening was a success too. Except for the bit when I screamed with laughter because I felt the masseur was tickling me. Muppet! In singing, with alcohol in you, the true nature of a person is often revealed via Dutch courage and the feeling of being uninhibited.
Call these mannerisms, cultural exchanges, societal foibles, national characteristics, each one of these experiences and I’m sure you have your own constitute scenes, incidences, that build into narratives and stories.
The number of Chinese king fu films I watched growing up where the hero drinks Sake. Imagine Sherlock Holmes having a cup of tea every time he’s spoiling for a fight? Come to think if it. Or like you I marvel at Woody Allen’s piquant lens examination of Manhattan — its cultural references and romanticism. And for the aficionados of comedy, Benny Hill huh!
‘Hey I love Benny Hill’, he said. That was in Lebanon and a few other countries. ‘Yes’, I muffled a response, ‘he’s funny’, with a mock smile knowing I wouldn’t have the time to talk about how out-of-date his slapstick is but, yes, Hill was a national hero until a different form of comedy bereft of bikini-clad women emerged.
Jeez what would it be like if we were all the same? By observation alone, when I scour my in-medium list, if the post is not generally related to America — usually a nod or reference in the title, and of course written to a high standard of storytelling, medium staff appear to give their recommendations a wide berth. By the way, just asking, but are their Medium staff in other countries curating feeds?
Like you, I love stories — a somewhat naive comment as whether I like them or not story telling is at the heart of our very existence. We talk, share, advise, fall in and out of love, stop and start wars because of stories — and, AND how we interpret them. France’s Trollope’s coruscating pen exploited the schisms and mannerism of American through her cornea in her populist 19th century novel Domestic Manners of the Americans. Today, Brit John Oliver is doing the same, with a wit which puts the barmy brigade in his cross fire.
Some people though have a gift for storytelling — a mathematical, mellifluous and artistic way of shaping words and images that resonate with large groups of people. How do they do it?

Stories, from Chicago, Cairo to Chongqing and Syrian border.

Did I tell you I like stories, and teach it, the video kind, the one we call news? I spent a good many years telling it directly or indirectly on television and radio. I’d think, amongst other things, why does the news all seem the same? Why’s my editor telling me how to produce this, when on the ground I know better? And why, for instance, does one group search out a particular narrative about another - that moment in Fergusson when a protestor confronts Geraldo about Fox News coverage of Baltimore. And why is News generally now so decrepit.
That’s not to say there aren’t a great many orators and artists-as-reporters telling news stories, such as the crew from 60 minutes, Channel 4 News, and within the BBC but it’s to say the construct of news making is looking tired.
Why else would there be a panoply of video styles within the last ten years pulling viewers away from traditional news networks. And just so you know, the decline in news viewership in the UK started in the mid 1990s before the Net took hold. We, the audience were becoming a little weary then.
We’ve been doing that over the years since film begun. We started with short clips, then in an Edwin Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (1903) the audience would be introduced to a scene shot from two different angles running consecutively. They soon tired and inter cutting or parallel cutting between two scenes became the norm. As each generation became more adept at film grammar, they spoke through box office receipts what worked and what didn’t.
Then TV News came along; broke, clumsy, trying to find itself. It asked how do we tell what’s happened, when it’s already happened? And who’s doing the telling? What’s their background? They toiled and laboured, really, before the gave birth to Television New. An elite squad (people from the same schools, with almost the same politics) got hold of a machine, which could teleport people and their views into your living room. To many, politicians and advertisers, that was enough.
News became a new religion; anchors our priests, and we the dutiful congregation sucked up the sermons. Events were relayed as inevitable, indubitable truths, when all stories are constructs. We literally make them up, build them from memory and myths, but with the caveat they’re our truths.
There’s a moment in the past when TV News from NBC, CBS and overseas the BBC and then ITV comes together. They figure it out. They invent guidelines and so called ‘rules’. and set out to paradoxically ‘give the audience what they want’. Except they know better. Social networks, before Net social networks are formed.
Does where you’re from influence the way you tell stories. US Professor, Michael Schudson captures it eloquently. Journalism is cultural construct fashioned by societal and literary frameworks. You might as well be talking about another story form, Cinema because journalism practice purports to be different but really tries to homogenise its methods, strafe any cultural idiosyncrasies, deny there are alternatives. It’s the reason why all newscasts whether its China or Chicago look the same, though commerce of curmudgeon governments can alter news’ reality.
But what if there was no such thing as television news, or better still, given the audiences’ penchant for change where would video storytelling go next? Having travelled across the globe — from Chicago, Cairo to China asking that question, what did I find.
To a place where stories are unencumbered, where myths and cultures, and difference are respected and often expected.
My Chinese host told me a story. When a group of Chinese students had completed a one week trip to the US, they were asked of a memorable event to take back. A student replied, the Americans have odd looking eyes.
To stories where we marvel but do not feel threatened, but even then. To a language purportedly hidden in our junk DNA, where dreams and collective memories fashion choruses in our heads as monomyths. That as Leonard Shlain writes in Art and Physics stories imbued with allegorical meaning giving rise to different levels of interpretation. There is a dawn breaking silently and slowly in this realm and a group I have come to know engaged in it call it cinema journalism.
Strange huh. Now then can I have some water?