Proposing a Dogme 95 Approach of Journalism

Proposing a Dogme 95 Approach of Journalism

Proposing a Dogme 95 Approach of Journalism

An essay by Stijn Postema

Artists, architects, theatre makers, musicians, they all can perform the act of journalism just as well as – and maybe better than – the ‘real’ journalists. Take for example Forensic Architecture, a London-based multidisciplinary collective with art exhibitions all over the world. In their project, Airstrikes on the al-Jinah Mosque, the team analysed a US airstrike in Syria, in 2017. The US Central Command previously claimed that “US forces conducted an airstrike on an Al -Qaeda in Syria meeting on March 16th, killing several terrorists”. Questions were raised when the Syrian Civil Defence claimed recovering the bodies of 38 civilians, including five children. By conducting interviews and examining videos and photos, the team of Forensic Architecture constructed a model of the bombed building. Based on their knowledge of architecture, they were able to establish the real function of the building. A large Mosque, where during the airstrike close to 300 people were gathered for the Isha’a night prayer. Being architects, the team was able to ‘read the building’ differently and discover what really happened.

The German documentary Human Flow, by Ai Weiwei in 2017 is another recent example of an artist using journalistic techniques in his work. Many artists are involved in revealing the truth behind what is presented in (social) media and by the powerful institutions of this world. And by doing so, their work becomes ‘journalistic’.

This essay is about how professional artists and designers can utilise journalistic elements to create impactful and relevant art works.

There are enough reasons not to call yourself a journalist, so let’s deal with that first. Journalism is undeniably a profession under high pressure. Only a few years after IS terrorists started beheading orange T-shirt wearing reporters, some extremist US-citizens openly advocated the lynching of journalists, wearing T-shirts reading “Rope. Tree. Journalist”. [1] This happened in America, the land where journalists claimed to have invented truth-based and unbiased news. [2] Worldwide, censorship is increasing, over two hundred and fifty journalists are imprisoned, and around fifty are killed every year because they are journalists. [3] The news is mistrusted by a rising number of people living in western democracies. [4] Alan Rusbridger , the former Guardian editor-in-chief describes how UK journalism’s reputation has been severely tarnished in the last two decades because ‘journalistic’ media used criminal methods like phone tapping to report and spy on celebrities personal lives. [5] Many news consumers, according to Rusbridger, have become sceptic, confused and distrustful about journalism. At the same time, quality news media have a longstanding tradition of taking responsibility for their publications, and journalism developed reliable mechanisms of observing and reporting about reality in a verifiable and transparent way.

If artists are to perform the act of journalism (without calling it journalism), it might be worth exploring what these mechanisms are and how they can be of value. To do this, I propose a Dogme 95 approach of journalism.

Dogme 95 approach: A Vow of Chastity

As an artist you probably know Dogme 95. For those who don’t: The Dogme 95 film movement was initiated by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Its goal was to make pure film again. The Dogme 95 manifesto included “vows of chastity”, a set of self-made rules, such as always shooting on location, all camera work must be hand-held, and no use of special lighting. The Dogme 95 film directors committed themselves to these vows and intended to follow them wholeheartedly. It was a minimalistic, realistic approach to film. And they did this because, as they said: "In a business of extremely high budgets, we figured we should balance the dynamic as much as possible." [6]

The question is, can artists do the same, can artists balance the dynamics of a deceiving fake news world?

But before going into what should be considered journalism’s core elements, so you can create your own vows of chastity, I first need to explain something else. Although journalism is a profession, and traditional practitioners have an almost religious regard of what a true journalist should achieve (being investigative journalists and bringing down a president – like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, movie tip: All the President's Men, 1976), there is no oath involved to protect its purity. There is no:

(High wizard of quality journalism announcing):
Welcome to quality journalism, please take your vow of chastity.

(To be proclaimed out loud by the aspirant journalist):
I [speak out your own name] hereby declare that I oblige myself to tell the truth, to verify all information I intend to spread by using multiple witnesses, disclosing as many sources as possible.
I declare to stand independent and autonomous, uncorrupted by sources and powers.
I promise to monitor those powers, be the voice of minorities and, report on both successes and failures of those in power.
I will serve citizens and be loyal first to them, I will represent all groups and defend them within my professional powers against any form of tyranny. I promise to offer them a platform to a myriad of worldviews, I might share my own, but will never force my view on anyone.
I see it as my duty to keep the news interesting and relevant and I aspire to avoid sensationalism and stereotyping. I am aware of my shortcomings, and I can make mistakes, however, I will aspire to present my reporting in a transparent and truth-seeking fashion, and I will always be accountable for my publications.
I [your name] also realise that although I sometimes take on the role of news curator on a certain platform, I am always a co-creator of the news. Therefore, I pledge to honour the rights and responsibilities of others involved in co-creating journalism – which is about everyone whose expertise, opinion, rectification or eyewitness account helped shape the news.

There are no such vows. Journalism, like the arts, is a free profession, meaning that everyone can call herself a journalist, without any legal repercussions.

Instead of a reporter’s Hippocratic Oath, all quality news media have their own Editorial Guidelines. These contain the values and standards of the news medium. Often, they include an editorial style book (comparable to a design style book) and a Code of Ethics: a professional code to guide journalists in their everyday choices such as verifying sources (always more than one) before presenting something as a fact. Quality news media usually declare you can hold them accountable for following their own rules.

Kovach and Rosenstiel researched and developed a list of values that are true for journalism in most western democracies. [7] They called it The Elements of Journalism. In a free rephrasing of their rules:

Journalists:
* have an obligation to tell the truth;
* are first loyal to citizens (place the public interest above self-interest or assumptions, represent all groups, not ignoring some);
* verify information (using multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources);
* operate independently from subjects (uncorrupted by sources, never intimidated by power. Otherwise they lose credibility);
* monitor those in power (watchdog, guards against tyranny, voice of the minorities, reporting both success and failure);
* are reliable curators of public criticism (offering a platform to face criticism and compromise and a myriad of truths);
* keep news interesting and relevant (proportionate, not inflating events for sensation, stereotyping, overly negative without grounds);
* maintain a personal sense of ethics and responsibility (having a strong moral compass. Being accountable);
* guide citizens who all have rights and responsibilities to act as journalists and help them to become media literate. 

Yes, that’s right, the journalistic ‘vow of chastity’ I made up before is directly inspired by these journalistic elements! Back to the arts, that already have their own professional standards.


Does this idea using journalistic values in your individual or collective art manifesto offer enough challenge? Maybe it does if you consider the following: we live in media. [8] But in this media life, facts and fictions are mixed constantly. Quality news media have the same impact as fake news and troll reporters. People live in filter bubbles, their dialogue mainly reveals disturbing alternative realities, with misconceptions on both sides. The challenge for artists is maybe not to also blur the lines of reality. That seems to be the mainstream, the Netflix approach of arts, where blurring reality has become a storytelling style cliché in films and series. As such, art is not shaking up anyone. There is no call-to-action following the collectively felt confusion about what is real and what is not – it rather leeds to apathy. To be impactful, the biggest artistic challenge is to find ways to touch people on an emotional level by separating truth from lies, reality from fiction, and by doing so balancing the dynamics of a life in media.

A note on The New Newsroom at MU

Artistic-journalistic productions increasingly find their way to art exhibitions, museums and biennials. [9] The October 2018 exhibition The New Newsroom, Reporting Redesigned at MU gives an impression of what could happen if artists and designers perform the act of journalism with a Dogme 95 approach, merging the best of both disciplines.

The exhibition offers a broad variety of artworks related to journalism and social media. Some artworks are criticizing contemporary media culture and journalism, such as The Or@cle Rift by Telemagic that pre-selects your news based on your linguistic preferences, or the work Devoured by NXS in which they focus attention to the influence of aesthetics in journalism. Some artworks criticise tools that in the past were considered reliable for journalism, such as the work Make Believe by Arthur Boer and Boris Smeenk who dismantle photos as permanently unreliable sources.

Other works use journalistic methods to create a journalistic product, but they use a platform that is unsual for journalism, such as The Uncensored Playlist, in which regular journalists have changed their news into lyrics and publish it on a music app, to circumvent censorship. Some artists in the exhibition use new platforms that allow novel in-depth journalistic research, such as the work After Photography by Donghwan Kam, or Jim Brady’s Mobile Journalism, featuring detailed 3D-visualisations that allow such rich information that they can be analysed more meticulously by journalists and audiences than ever.

Also on display is the already mentioned art project Airstrikes on the Al-Jinah Mosque, by Forensic Architecture. Here arts and journalism truly blend, combining the best of the artistic standards (one of their projects is now even nominated for the Turner Prize, 2018 [10]) and the journalistic ethical legacy. In their work are many features that resemble elements of journalism as formulated by Kovach and Rosenstiel and their publications can be defined as rigorous and verified news packages. It is an example of how the news practice moves beyond journalism. [11] This, in my view, makes Forensic Architecture a forerunner of future newsrooms: the cooperation of a multidisciplinary team, driven to reveal injustice, hold powers accountable, and give a voice to minorities and the oppressed. It's not always what the practitioners say they are (architects, archaeologists, artists) it is what they do that makes it journalism.

Stijn Postema
Researcher at the University of Amsterdam/ Ede Christian University of Applied Sciences (NWO-funded PhD research project Journalism as Artistic Practice). He teaches the module Cross-Platform Journalism in the International Journalism Master course at the Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland. For many years he worked as a freelance journalist and visual artist.

References
1. Ernst, J. (2016, November 6). Rope.Tree. Journalist. Retrieved 10 September 2018, from http://live.reuters.com/Event/Election_2016/460724872?ss=1

2. Cooper, K. (1942). AP. In: Mindich, D. T. (1998). Just the facts: How" objectivity" came to define American journalism. NYU Press

3. CPJ. (2018). CPJ’s database of attacks on the press. Retrieved 8 October 2018, from https://cpj.org/data/killed/?status=Killed&motiveConfirmed%5B%5D=Confirmed&type%5B%5D=Journalist&start_year=1992&end_year=2018&group_by=year

4. Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Kalogeropoulos, A., Levy, D. A., & Nielsen, R. K. (2017). Reuters institute digital news report 2017. Oxford: Reuters

5. Rusbridger, A. (2018, August 31). Alan Rusbridger: who broke the news? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/aug/31/alan-rusbridger-who-broke-the-news

6. Sfetcu, N. (2011). The art of Movies. Bucharest: Multimedia. Page 1070

7. Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2014). The elements of journalism: What newspeople should know and the public should expect. Three Rivers Press. Original from 2001, revised in 2014.

8. Deuze, M. (2011). Media life. Media, Culture & Society, 33(1), 137–148.

9. Cramerotti, A. (2009). Aesthetic journalism: How to inform without informing (Vol. 2). Intellect Books

10. Tate. (2018). Forensic Architecture. Retrieved 25 September 2018, from https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/turner-prize-2018/forensic-architecture

11. Deuze, M., & Witschge, T. (2018). Beyond journalism: Theorizing the transformation of journalism. Journalism19(2), 165–181. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884916688550