The Balance of Journalism

Josh Bernard-Cooper provides insight into the ever-changing world of journalism and how it is easier to manipulate now than ever, reminding readers that journalism does not need to be impartial to be engaging.

Quality journalism is often hailed as a bastion of objectivity. Accurate reports of events, or the presentation of an argument that logically flows from premise(s) to conclusion, are a cornerstone for writing that could be considered “reliable”. That being said, journalism need not aim for impartiality to be engaging; in some cases, journalists can even do away with a truthful account of events to attract readers. Although admitting this may sound like a postmodernist’s wet dream, or perhaps straight out of White House press conference condemning “fake news”; such journalism doesn’t always have to be antagonised. Anecdotal or Gonzo journalism offers the reader a chance to engage with ideas and opinions in a different way, which can be just as successful if the journalist is not self-absorbed or misleading. 

In recent times, with an ever-increasing access to information facilitated by the internet and fueled by social media, publicising opinions and ideas is easier than ever.This blurs the line between rashly expressed opinions and journalism; the days where an article published in print was a major investment, and therefore had to undergo an intense vetting process, are gone. Understandably, the widespread reaction has been to condemn journalism that aims to mislead to reader into believing a falsehood. The spread of such media can have much unwanted impact on political and commercial interests after all. However, such a response risks restricting the forms that quality journalism can take.

One such example of a journalistic style that relies on subjective expression of opinion, often through first-hand experience, is the aforementioned Gonzo journalism. Birthed by Hunter S. Thompson in 1971 as a two-part article in the Rolling Stone Magazine entitled “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the first outing of Gonzo journalism was a hybrid of Thompson’s anecdotes, opinions and imagination. Despite this, it has come to be hailed as a pivotal statement of the failure of the American dream within the sixties’ counterculture movement.

Thompson went on to write more Gonzo journalism. “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in ’72,” which gave his account of the Nixon-McGovern election campaigns as the political correspondent for Rolling Stone, was hailed as “the best campaign book ever published,” by the New York Times and as “the most valuable book on the campaign,” by McGovern himself. The value of this form of journalism, despite its fundamental qualities that we would now see as unacceptable, is indisputable. This, however, does not grant all forms of anecdotal journalism a free pass. 

Had this article been a dramatic retelling of my personal experiences, be they relating to my Jewish identity, body image or mental health, it would have held significantly less value. Despite dealing with important issues, it may have read more like a blog post. After all, what importance would my own accounts of these things hold over yours, or the thousands of other articles readily available reflecting on them? Unlike Thompson, many journalists, including myself, do not hold a unique insight into a cultural phenomenon or a political campaign. An article based around my anecdotes or written in a gonzo style may be likened to little more than glorified fiction. Although our aversion to these styles of journalism is sometimes overenthusiastic, this clarification clearly shows that it is still an important one.

The recent aversion to impartial journalism is undoubtedly important but risks an overreaction that endangers other forms of reporting. Avoiding articles that could potentially mislead the electorate through manipulation of figures and poor research is undoubtedly important. Similarly, anecdotal writing from journalists more concerned with publishing their own unremarkable stories to somehow validate themselves amongst a maelstrom of self-centred social media posts should be prevented from diluting the selection of experiences that need to be heard on a journalistic platform.

Gonzo journalism and anecdotal journalism from a unique perspective need not be demonised, should they offer insight as valuable as Thompson’s. Making this distinction is important and saves us from writing off something so greatly sought after. That is, however, just an opinion garnered from my own years reading articles, be they impartial or Gonzo. Perhaps you might describe it as anecdotal. Does it hold any value or is it simply the ramblings of another self-indulgent journalist? That, reader, lies with you.