Journalism and Art in Digital Societies

by Mauricio Rivera

During my undergraduate studies on media and communications, I learnt three fundamentals that, either because they were constantly repeated or because they were stated in a particular context or manner, stuck to me as the main principles of modern journalism. The first one relates to what in the Colombian journalistic lingo is known as la chiva: “the goat.” A goat is a piece of breaking news, a headliner. Thus, the first principle – more like the first commandment – of the successful journalist was: “thou shall not get goated” (it also works as a verb). Getting goated means allowing another journalist (from the competition or from your own media) to publish a news story before you.

The second principle came to me in the form of a proverb: and would translate into something like “the knowledge of a journalist should be wide as an ocean but one inch deep.”

The third principle came from an anecdote, or more than an anecdote, an insight from an experienced news-writing journalist. Actually, from two experienced news-writing journalists, one from Colombia and one from Australia (both of them teachers I had in two different news-room-practice courses). This insight relates to what is known as the 5Ws news-writing system: how it is a common practice in newsrooms in both Colombia and Australia for journalists to write their news articles over old ones, making the necessary changes in the parts containing the Ws (What, When, Where, Who and Why – or is it hoW?).

My understanding of these principles, therefore, tells me that modern journalism is a matter of speed: it’s a hasty practice, so if you want to keep up, you have to be active, you have to be aware and you have to be quick (so drink a lot of coffee). To be fast enough, you have to be superficial. And to successfully combine quickness and superficiality there is a formula, a pre-established process.

I have also received many other lessons about the importance of checking your facts and the responsibilities that come along with freedom of expression. But still, the first three principles – let’s call them the modern principles – of journalism, were the ones that stuck to me. And I believe they did so because, unlike the other principles – the ethical principles – they were expressed not as an official part of the curriculum, but as natural (almost unconscious) remarks from people who knew the journalistic industry from the inside.

Journalism as an industry

By the end of the nineteenth century, the newspaper industry had morphed from a proliferation of small, independent, artisan printers, to a few large, industrial printers owned by wealthy entrepreneurs like Pulitzer and Hearst. During this time appeared what at the time came to be known as new journalism. This new journalism (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe’s new journalism) was the style of newscasting that imposed a 5Ws news writing system. This system was implemented, mostly because it was the most efficient way to compile the largest amount of news stories within the least possible pages (using the least possible ink and leaving enough space for the advertisements).

The electronic media of the twentieth century (radio and television) works under a similar model. Not constrained by the space in a page, but by the minutes in an hour and the seconds in a minute.

By the turn of the twentieth century, journalism had become an industrial process: a factory destined for the mass production of news stories, a mechanical quest for immediacy. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, newspapers used to contain long opinion pieces like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776). They also contained poems, fiction stories and other more artistic features that, although not entirely absent from the modern newspapers, became an accessory of the short-punched, concise news story. Besides from the aforementioned Common Sense, the list of renowned literary works that were first published in newspapers include examples like Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1836), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), Leo Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina (1873-77), Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80) and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), to name few.

Fragmented Societies Produce Fragmented Institutions

Communication theorists like Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan argued that the printing press turned humans into an overtly visual species. As a result of this came a general fragmentation of society (Wolfe, 1968). Ken Robinson argues that most (if not all) modern, Western educational systems have been developed under the same industrial, fragmented model recognised by Innis and McLuhan. Robinson points out how the modern educational system was “conceived in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and under the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution”. Thus, modern education was “modelled on the interest (…) and in the image of industrialisation”. To expose his argument, Robinson mentions how schools today are still “organised under factory lines”, that is, they still work under ringing bells, separate facilities, specialised into separate subjects and still educating children “by batches.”

The analogy between modern journalism and modern education is relevant, not only because it shows how these two independent institutions evolved “in the image of industrialisation”, but because it also shows how they evolved in isolation from each other and the other major institutions of the industrial society. They are two more examples of the social fragmentation of the industrial era.

The journalistic Legacy

Up to this stage, the reader might have perceived a negative attitude on my account against all things modern. However, it is not my intention to depict industrialism and industrial societies as evil (nor is my intention to portray either rural or so-called information societies as good). As Robinson points out, prior to the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, there was no such thing as a system of public education. Just as, it was during the industrial era when the ideals known as human rights began to be regarded as universal.

It was also during the modern era when the guidelines for responsible journalism – the ethical principles mentioned at the beginning of this chapter – were established. And when remarkable journalists like Jacob Riis, Nellie Bly, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Robert Capa, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote (to name a few) published their work. But as positive as the legacy of these journalists may be, I don’t believe one should accredit such legacy to the existence of an editorial industry. In fact, when one reads Orwell’s Collected Essays (1968) or Kapuscinski’s chronicles and travel journals (2001, 2007, 2009) one gets the impression that they managed to produce their work, not thanks to, but despite, the existence of an editorial industry.

In Travels With Herodotus (2007) Kapuscinski writes of how he took Herodotus’ Histories (c450 B.C.) along in his first experience as a foreign correspondent in India. Since then, he continued carrying it throughout his career, drawing inspiration from the ancient Greek historian while travelling as a struggling journalist from a struggling Polish news agency. Just like Kapuscinki found a role-model in Herodotus’ inquisitive and adventurous spirit, my work is inspired by the image of Kapuscinki in Ethiopia, digging out the secrets of Haile Selassie’s regime (1983), or by Orwell’s explorations in the slums of London and Paris (1933), or Tom Wolfe’s interpretations of American pop culture (1968; 1973).

Art and Journalism in the Twenty-first Century

In April 2008, I started a website called the Outsider’s Guide to Melbourne (O.G.)[1]. The aim of the O.G. is to be an interactive journal of the city (and) a space to promote emerging artists. The development of this website led me to begin a research on digital media and its influence on twenty-first century societies.

My research questions the roles of journalism and art in so-called digital societies. Like any other research on the so-called social sciences, mine is constrained by the meaning of words. In my case, the most significant ones are rather equivocal terms like journalism (and journalist), art (and artist), digital societies, history and memory. Hence, before addressing my main research questions, I should deal with the meaning of such terms.

Then, what is journalism? One popular definition says: Journalism is the first draft of history. So what is history? According to theorist like Florian Brody (1999) and Pierre Nora (1989), history in modern societies is the collective memory turned into a commodity. In other words, history is an official version of past events, which, as the proverb goes, is usually written by the winner and then commercialised as any other product. Based on this operational definition of the term history, in a related essay, I analyse three examples of Colombian art from the twentieth century that, in my opinion, portray a more accurate representation of the Colombian nation than most official, historical sources.

But returning to the meaning of my research’s key words: in the case of art (and artists) the definitions become more equivocal. According to McLuhan, artists are “the antennae of the race” and “mankind’s early warning systems.” In his essay about Marshall McLuhan, Tom Wolfe explains this definition by exposing artists as “geniuses who detect the invisible truths intuitively and express them symbolically (and) divine ‘naturals’, gifted but largely unconscious of the meaning of their powers.”

The vision of the artists as “divine naturals (…) unconscious of their powers”, portrays them as people with a special sensibility that allows them to look at society from an outsider’s perspective. They are able to perceive society as a whole and detect factors and forces that influence its structure. However, this peripheral view impedes them in grasping and understanding the way these forces operate. On the other hand, modern journalists have to deal on a day-to-day basis with the practical functioning of such forces. They report on the minutest facts and the most rigid figures; but because of the specificity of their job, they tend to miss the bigger picture.

This is, of course, a generalisation that does not apply to many journalists and many artists. But it does fit the stereotypes of the modern journalist and the modern artist (and as misleading and equivocal as stereotypes may be, there is a reason why they exist).

Subjectivity and Objectivity in the Era of Information

Art by definition is a subjective exercise. Even collaborative art comes from the reunion of different subjectivities. Modern journalism, on the other hand, was developed under the idea of objectivity. Besides from being quick and economic (in space and time), the new journalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that is, the journalism of the 5Ws, was allegedly objective. In theory, in the short-punched, concise news story there was no room for personal interpretations: just facts.

Now that over a century has gone since the establishment of the first major industrial newspapers (i.e., the newspapers of Pulitzer and Hearst), I believe it is time to see the idea of objective journalism for what it is: a myth. From the original investigation, to redaction, editing, design and publishing, a traditional journalistic piece is tainted by several subjectivities. From the subjectivity of the journalist who decides whom to interview and how to write (or in the case of the electronic media produce) a news story, to the subjectivity of the editor who decides which stories are included and in what order, and the subjectivity of the designers who decide how to present such stories in order to make them more appealing to the public. All these subjectivities are at the service of making a profit. No media, as independent and respectable as it may be regarded, stands above its own interests. As Nietzsche pointed out: there are no “facts” only “interpretations.”

As mentioned before, the journalistic industry was developed as a mechanical quest for immediacy. Many centuries before the invention of the printing press and its subsequent introduction into Europe, different human groups had embarked on this quest. Throughout the history of human civilisation, there have been numerous technological advances that have contributed to this process. A few amongst them are: the domestication of the horse (c3.500 B.C.), the invention of writing (c3.100 B.C.), the printing press (invented in China in 1041 and introduced into Europe in 1450), the steam engine (1698), the telegraph (1844), the radio (1895), television (1941) and the Internet (1969).

During the nineteenth century, electromagnetic technologies were developed as the vehicle for mass media to reach immediacy. However, there is a paradox in this quest, as immediacy, by definition, implies the absence of intermediaries, that is, the extinction of the media.

Before the development of digital technologies, the media of mass communication had a meaning and a purpose. These were, to transport news from its place of origin to a distant, interested audience. The major events of the first decade of the twenty-first century show that such meaning and purpose are becoming less and less relevant. From the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, to the outburst of social revolts in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, the events have been (and are being) originally reported by common citizens and not professional journalists.

Recent advances in communications, such as the development of social media and mobile recording devices, are altering the structure under which humans exchange information. In this scheme, the figure of the journalist as a technocrat in charge of the transportation of news is becoming obsolete. So is there a space for journalists in the twenty-first century?

To answer this question, it is important to find a definition of journalism that goes beyond the romantic ideal of being the first draft of history. In the fragmented societies of the industrial era, journalism was regarded as a profession. In Colombia, this led to the extreme that journalists were required to have a professional licence (just like doctors or engineers). But with the development of digital technologies and the establishment of specialised blogs and websites it seems there is no room, not only for a professional licence for journalists but for professional journalists of any kind. After all, isn’t an economist better suited to write an analysis on economic matters, like the debt crisis in Europe, than a journalist? Or a doctor to do so about DNA mapping?

On the other hand, websites like WikiLeaks are allowing whistle-blowers to leak information without having to deal with traditional media.

This is why I believe that journalism in the twenty-first century should be regarded, not as a profession, but as a practice and a method to be applied by people from all different backgrounds. In this sense, the principles of investigative journalism developed from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries (the ethical principles mentioned at the beginning of this chapter) should be the legacy that must be preserved from modern journalism.

Software and Newscasting, Humans and Story-telling

In an article published in The Age on May 2009, Rupert Murdoch stated that “the future of newspapers is digital”. Now, based on Lev Manovich’s statement (2008) that more than a mere tool, software is a technological breakthrough that helps in the development (and even the creation) of culture, I will dare to foresee a hypothetical scenario involving Murdoch’s “digital newspapers”. If, like Manovich says, software defines culture, I venture that in a not-too-distant future, the role of organising information under a 5Ws scheme would be done by software. In the newsrooms of Murdoch’s future “digital newspapers”, the information would arrive via tweets uploaded from everywhere in the world. There, a news writing software would re-arrange them under a 5Ws news writing system. Only then could one speak of something close to an objective journalism –although only partially-objective – as an object would be organising the information being fed by different subjects around the world.

One of the central hypotheses in my research is that in future societies, the dividing line between the roles of journalism and art should fade. On a related matter, H.G. Wells (1930) reached a similar view when he stated that: “the essential task of men of good-will in all states and countries (…) is an educational task”.

Thus, if journalism – as a practice and a method – is bound to permeate other institutions in the twenty-first century; and if artists truly are the “antennae of the race” and “mankind’s early warning systems,” then it should be the artists who – applying the positive aspects (i.e., the ethical principles) learnt from modern journalism – lead the process of recording and communicating the collective memory of their societies. They should also play a role in teaching other members of these societies how to record and communicate their memory.

This brings me back to Robinson’s belief in the need to change education paradigms (2010): as I believe it is in education where the roles of the journalist and the artist should converge.

Related posts:

Memory Against History in Colombian Art



Journalism and Art in Digital Societies (II) rupertcabron copia