How to break free from the habits of journalism and forge fresh ideas in Storytelling and tech.
In 2005 in Berlin, Brit-Ghanaian David Dunkley Gyimah received the highest International award for videojournalism for his film ‘8 days’ . It featured British newspaper journalists he’d trained converting from text to multimedia and video producers to report on a murder.
The UK scheme was set up by the Press Association and over the course of seven years hundreds of journalists would be trained by David
Years on he became curious. From his consultancy he observed that some professional journalists’ work cut through to audience creating strong memories and garnered some of the highest awards in the UK, whilst some didn’t.
Almost twenty years from leaving university studying Applied Chemistry, David returned to uni to do a PhD investigating that very question. He completed his studies under international educationist Professor Ciaran Sugrue.
Part of David’s findings was that some journalists were operating outside the norms of broadcast journalism styles. Their influences fell into broader creative domains and whilst they acknowledged their own intent, to their managers that approach was either hidden or so subtle as to disguise any detectable deviation from broadcast practices.
Their work appeared on the edge of the Overton window embracing what Professor Robin Hogarth refers to as “circuit breakers” freeing the storytellers from conventional norms by drawing on multiple often unrelated skills.
The Overton window named after Political Scientist Joseph Overton usually references policies that are popular and acceptable by the population at a given moment. But it can shift depending on public perception and what audiences find welcoming. Timing in the digital age, David discovered, was almost everything. Audiences had both matured from what they were seeing day in day out and had developed a more discerning taste to storytelling.
Hence whilst television executives called what they viewed as ‘good television’, it was more than that and the list of “circuit breakers” would include several journalists David had trained.
One award-winning BBC journalist said to him, so long as the journalism integrity was there in the story, for instance adhering to impartiality, executives paid no mind to the styles. Awards ceremonies though did, garlanding several reporters.
Unlike journalists whose pattern recognition resided in normative journalism these award-winning journalists’ approach could be identified coming from somewhere else. The results were stunning says David who for almost two decades has been an RTS juror (the UK’s highest award for television practitioners). You could almost predict which ones would win.
Contributors to David’s study included more than 200 qualitative interviews with top flight award-winning journalists, the UK’s first videojournalists in 1994 (which David was a part of), Deborah Turness (now CEO of BBC News), and Robert Drew, the American whom with his team in the 1960s changed the face of news and documentary by introducing Direct Cinema.
Drew also miniturised cameras and engineered synch sound — sound that could be recorded in the field in real time. He was confident that as people experimented these new discourses would arrive, but the experimenting says David needed to be outside of news’ normalised style domain, and above all include variations that were culturally diverse.
In the past two decades David has been training storytellers — from Human Rights bodies, UN, Nato, to creatives delivering films and seminars across Russia, India, China and the Syrian border.
He’s come to recognise the style emerging from videojournalism as paradoxically cinema and journalism; it’s akin to a cinema director using any tools to draw greater or ancillary meaning in events to assist audiences’ cognition.
There are obvious sticking points. Audiences associate Cinema with fictional narratives and hence affirm a form of sensationalising of events. Research shows just how much attitudes to cinema and meaning has changed. There’s no essence, but one framing is an understanding and adoption of a language which provides deeper cognition of events using an array of sense-making.
One of the myths of news making is its production is devoid of interpretation, that is what you see is what happened, is what you get. It’s a myth because firstly news making is itself a construct. That’s rarely acknowledged.
The interviewing you’re likely to conduct requires framing, positioning and more often than not where ever the initial utterance was made its requested to resurface later driven by schedules — unless its live. Research shows that at the inception of TV News some of cinema’s language, from roles such as producer, or film langue such as wide shot, were adopted.
Yet there were a myriad reasons pioneering news executives were tentative, from seemingly wanting to avoid filmmakers’ use of metaphor, a lack of resources to create contiguity in sequencing, their own lack of understanding, and screen size that hampered a richer visual language. And lest we forget pioneering TV journalists tended to be former newspaper journalists, a practice which largely continue today.
Cinema journalism like journalism is not a one-size fits all. Ideas atrophy or grow as societies mature or lose their cohesion and that requires vigilance. At the moment journalism’s emphasis is on combating misinformation, which requires new skillsets which include comprehending film and text’s evolving semiotics.
David has written extensively on this on his platform in which he makes comparisons between journalism forms and the collapse and birth of renaissance perspective art in the 20th century. Cinema Journalism is but one form of factual storytelling for its time in seeking truth, just as impressionism upended the Western world’s art convention curated by the Academy de Baux.
There’s an approach an exemplar director adopts looking through the lens of a camera that asks whether what they’re seeing matches the reality of the story, how the audience may likely interpret it, and how to problem-solve to do justice to a story. There’s a matrix of considerations that broad brush journalism takes for granted, such as sequencing, framing and lighting.
Amongst those who have given David’s work a nod and welcomed his practice include the UK’s Olympic committee, senior broadcasters, such as Jon Snow, the BBC’s director of digital, and the multiple award-winning film maker and author of a Story of Film Mark Cousins.
More recently he provided the keynote for Denmark TV2’s Editor-in-Chief Marie-Louise von Holstein who called his talk, “Exciting and Inspiring”.
But David hadn’t finished. In storytelling, he asked the question about innovation and tech’s impact by firstly coding and building a platform and secondly interrogating a spectrum of media innovations, from mobile phones, the BBC’s platforms, photojournalism and online behaviour.
That work in 2006 would win him one of the most coveted awards at that time in innovation and journalism, the US knight Batten awards. The organisers flew him to Washington DC to present at the National Press Club saying his approach “foreshadows the future.”
The consequences of those experiences would ultimately result in David leading one of the first Storytelling labs at the University of Westminster and subsequently the Futures Story Lab at the University of Cardiff.
The central enquiries combining storytelling and tech, the arts and science, with a cultural epistemology would converge around what David calls Applied Storytelling. It draws on, and takes him back to his chemistry and maths days of Applied Chemistry and a particular phenomenon.
In 1926, Niels Bohr, a quantum physicist, proposed a theory that dug science out of a hole. Scientists wrestling with new findings on the behaviour of light could not at first reconcile how its properties could vary. It was a wave, but also had particle behaviour.
Bohr posited his theory of complementarity. Light could exist in both forms, but not at the same time. This now accepted norm did something science had rarely, if ever, broached. Science could be subjective, but equally important this duality could be used to explain how fixed states have the license to operate outside normative thinking.
This reckoning could apply to art and science as couplets as much as the journalist as storyteller and engineer. The Applied Storyteller incorporated the science of storytelling into their practice whilst building platforms and apps. The approach also meant looking at storytelling as problem-solving in ‘wicked environments’ as a start-up or film praxis around such established forms known as the ‘Lean method’.
How do you take a complex subject, mind map it and then come at it from various different angles. How does one issue open itself to divserse narratives. Chatham House director of Programmes, Prof Jack Spence back in 1994, could testify that David was thinking that way from reporting in the early 90s from South Africa.
The issue in using Lean is it‘s often weighted to homogenous ecosystems, and hence just like journalism can ignore the impact culture and empathy provide.
In tackling difficult problems and telling complex stories, Applied Storytellers could rely on the paradox of bridging the inner mind (art and science) with external builds e.g. engineering. When that holds debates around the use of tech enabling Applied Storytellers appears less frightening.
For instance take the current disruption over Chat GPT. But first consider this:
“This is the end of descriptive journalism. I need only say look and everyone will see for themselves”.
This exasperated quote from journalist Chester Wilmot in the 1950s is in response to seeing how a new film camera could capture details on people’s faces at an election meeting. Wilmot worked on the BBC’s Foreign Correspondent programme and he reckoned with these new cameras the reporters role was doomed, over!
While it’s right to be concerned about Chat GPT such concerns in technology aren’t new and require context. In 1997 one of the world’s most formidable Chess Players lost to IBM’s super computer Deep Blue. Within in a year Gary Kasparov had a solution. IBM wasn’t going away, so what was the opportunity to embrace it.
Furthermore, given Moravec’s paradox that explains how computers and human have reciprocal strengths, could computers be used in Chess games? Hans Peter Moravec from the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University uncovered in the 1980s how sensory skills and illogical behaviours require huge levels of computing, whilst logic doesn’t.
This assessment would assist Kasparov. Freestyle Chess would bring together teams of people and computers. People did strategy, long term goals of behaviours, whilst the computers were tasked with tactics — various immediate actions, which could be memorised in their millions.
In all, a combination of behavioural economics, science, art, tech and storytelling could be fused into an interdisciplinary matrix taught to a new generation of storytellers and a new kind of journalist.
And that’s what David has been doing for the last almost ten years and by the end of this year is to reveal a new platform which should provide any institution with a blue print for next generation storytellers.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a reader/ Associate Professor at Cardiff University. Recently he was a panel chair at Create UK’s festival of creatives, worked for Google on their multimillion pound innovation fund, and was an advisor and book writer for the British Library’s 500 years of News exhibition. David was the filmmaker behind Obama’s 100 Days at the Royal Festival Hall with a live orchestra conducted by Prof Shirley Thompson. He is the co-founder of a leading media diversity journal Representology and worked with Nato on their war games platform. He’s currently working on ideas with international states in the fields of education and Applied Storytelling. He was voted one of the top 40 influential Ghanaians in the diaspora by Ghana Abroad