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SXSW Interactive: Zombie Journalism and Superhero Journalism

Two SXSW panels demonstrated that journalism, like many other industries born in the brick and mortar era, must evolve or die. The first panel was populated by professional zombies, unaware how pathetic their whining sounded. The second panel contained innovators of the Superhero mold.

Here Come the Zombies
The “Cinematic Storytelling and Journalism” panel presented four journalists (participant names withheld out of respect for the creatively dead) who discussed the pitfalls and pressures of telling stories in an age of visual-mediaWatching a panel sophistication. What was that again? The audience is sophisticated? The tools are amazing and easy to use? How bad can this get?

The presentation did began on a high note by showing a brilliant British satire of the typical 60-Minutes style reportage we have all seen hundreds of times: cliché visuals, condescending journalist, predictable structure. I first sensed that I might be in a creepy place when one of the panelists actually defended this style, with, “Well, you know, it’s what people are comfortable with.”

The next video example was a beautiful piece showing the work of a woman who made artificial eyes. This became her lifetime passion when her child lost his eye at an early age. It began with close-up shots of the eyes being created, then slowly introduced us to the woman and her story. Again, the panel had problems with it because of its non-traditional format.

The last example, a report on the 2010 Japanese tsunami, contained no narrative, only music.

The tsunami report was disparaged because it was “too beautiful”, although it showed the destruction and death in graphic detail. One of the panelists said that she expected to be hit up at the end of it with an appeal for money from some relief organization (as if that would have been a distasteful thing). To his credit, the moderator countered this argument with an appeal to the traditions of photojournalism, which tells stories with striking images.

The panel discussed the pressure some felt to make their reporting “look like MTV”, while another complained that it was hard to get his organization to adopt new approaches to reporting. A question from the floor, from an NPR reporter, bemoaned the fact that the web was full of amateurs trying to be journalists, without the training or ethics of the professional.

This cry of “we are professionals and they are not” is the mark of a dying profession. “Journalist”, from the French word jour, day, meaning one who records the events of the day, can certainly be applied to bloggers who do, after all, record the events of the day. The other disparaging term, “amateurs”, also comes from French. The word amour means love. An amateur is one who performs an activity for the love of it, not for money. It does not pertain to quality.

My years in public relations taught me that you don’t learn to be ethical by going to journalism school. I have seen newspapers print articles that I know were pure invention.

Journalism, as opposed to historical writing, began in the 17th Century, a relatively recent addition to the culture of the West. By the end of the 18th Century it was viewed as important enough to be enshrined in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

It may have reached its peak as a profession in the first half of the 20th Century when the existence of democracy was tied to the existence of a vibrant free press.

Journalism, 19th Century Style: You need a printing press: a large, complicated and expensive machine for pressing the images of letters and graphics on paper. Not something very many people in colonial America, or anywhere else in the world, could afford. Creating a newspaper required a heavy investment in capital, management and distribution.

Journalism, 21th Century Style: You need a computer and an internet connection. That’s something nearly everyone above the poverty level can afford. Oh, wait, that doesn’t make you a journalist, you’re just a blogger. What if the person who coined the term “web log” had decided to call it a “web journal”? Would that have made the great unwashed into “web journalists”?

About LeoOfMars

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.