Mainstream media aren’t the answer, we are
| Patrick Chalmers |
It’s a pig to get going as a journalist. Despite reporters’ enduring reputations as sub-pond-life types, plenty of people are eager to join them in writing, filming or photographing the news. Supply way outstrips the commercial demand, making it hard to earn any sort of living.
For all the wannabe hacks, there aren’t that many places for them to go. Of those at the mainstream media groups, their news output does a generally terrible job of holding our governors to account or examining the various crises facing our societies today. The few journalists who land regular jobs must balance their journalistic zeal and ideals with holding down their positions.
There are reasons for this, more or less obvious to regular journalists themselves. Whether they realise it or not, the stories they tell each day are bound to who pays for them. That means media owners and their advertisers have massive, if subtle, effects on how our news is packaged. Their agendas, not ours, influence which stories run, which don’t and how facts in each are ordered top to bottom. The same effect is true of state broadcasters, even though the ways it happens are different.
I was blind to that starting out as a journalist more than 20 years ago. Back then, I was a believer in mainstream media as a force for good — my big concern being how to get a job. Once I began to see more clearly, I was well set as a foreign correspondent for Reuters, now Thomson Reuters.
The organisation has offices dotted around the world, its stories feeding into any big brand media outlet you could mention, and straight onto financial trading screens. For the budding foreign reporter I was, there seemed nowhere better to work. I finally got in at the fourth time of asking.
When I quit 11 years later the veneer had long since gone. I was frustrated with doing superficial journalism that skated over how governments fail to serve their people’s best interests. That recurring story didn’t interest my editors, certainly not as the fundamental thrust of our news file. The effects of rampant financial speculation, serially torpedoed climate talks or resolutely corporate-friendly trade rules barely figured on their radars. The time allowed for such marginal issues was nothing compared with the hours we spent grinding out stories intended to help rich people get richer.
Once I’d left, it took me time to pick out the thread of failed governance running through these different issues, to see the essential charade of modern “democracy”. From local to global levels, our influence drains away, making occasional votes in national elections largely meaningless. True power lies with globally mobile capital and corporations.
I tell this personal cautionary tale as an introduction to activist journalism, the far more optimistic part of this piece. Getting a clearer-eyed view of our intertwined political systems let me see how we journalists face the constant risk of being mere foghorns for power. We have to understand that reality before exploring how things might be radically improved.
Though that’s hardly news for Stir readers, it took me ages to get it. In the process I came across both the Transition Network and the video activists of visionOntv. As Rob Hopkins explains in this issue, transitioners have identified the combined threat of climate change and peak oil and are resolutely focused on locally grown responses. visionOntv’s idea of training people to make media with the tools in their pockets grew out of Undercurrents, which made and shared activist media long before the mass public internet.
The networking effects of Transition and the citizen journalism techniques from the likes of visionOntv suggest powerful possibilities. The same synergies could bring public-focused journalism to other global networks, illustrating local responses to a problem as the way to finding global ones. Potential networks might be those tackling poor-country debt, abusive global trade rules, corporate tax dodging, rampant militarism and the effects of untrammelled financial speculation.
For all the complications and challenges of scale, the basic tools are accessible and relatively cheap. visionOntv’s mobile templates, explain how one or two individuals can make audio visual reports or interviews for rapid upload to the internet.
I first saw the potential directly last October, when the group’s full-time staff and volunteers covered the Rebellious Media Conference in London, their prodigious output belying their tiny budget. It was possible thanks to a combination of no-edit mobile phone reports for instant upload to the internet and a clever “pop-up” video studio made up of two cameras, a microphone and a laptop.
It’s not just a question of cheaper technologies. visionOntv’s real cuteness is in its commitment to as-live shooting of reports. That cuts out time and expense from the process of getting work out to audiences. It also keeps reports short, fully aware of today’s butterfly attention spans and the limitations of streaming video to mobile devices.
There is huge potential for doing decent-quality journalism that does the job our mainstream media fail to do. Its exploration has only just begun. My own efforts so far included covering the recent London Human Rights Watch Film Festival, working with fellow volunteer Glenn McMahon. Over several days, we interviewed film makers on subjects ranging from sex trafficking, Italian police brutality at the Genoa G8 and Paraguayan peasant farmers being forced off their land by industrial agriculture.
The DIY approach opens the portals of journalism to a far wider public, just as well given the current state of our media. Rather than wait for our governors and their chroniclers to hand down solutions from on high, we can get on with finding ones for ourselves and sharing those stories with others. The good news about our bad news is that it risks becoming yesterday’s news. Don’t say no one told you.
Patrick Chalmers is a journalist and author of Fraudcast News — How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies. You can listen to him talking about Fraudcast News in a “pop-up” interview from last year’s Rebellious Media Conference.
Spreading the word — a visionOntv media training for London Transition Initiatives: Training in making effective video reports with the kit people have. Read more here.