The myth of authenticity

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Does authentic mean true? Speaking to Sarah Montague on the Today Programme Captain Leo Docherty said videos of fighting in Afghanistan, recorded by soldiers on their mobile phones, are more authentic “because they are not manipulated by the media”. He went on to say that the fact they were “very brutal” also distinguished them from (implicitly) censored mainstream media coverage.

There is a dangerous myth developing that big media is inherently corrupting. That edited content is manipulated content and therefore less authentic than amateur content produced by ‘real people’. It is a myth inflamed by the current scandals engulfing television broadcasters, and further fuelled by self-righteous – and outrageously hypocritical – anger in the newspapers.

It is a dangerous myth because it equates unedited, raw, amateurish content with authenticity – for which read ‘true’ – and because it corrodes one of the fundamental values of journalism – objectivity.

When a soldier records an event, objectivity is unlikely to be foremost in his mind. He’s not thinking about getting multiple perspectives, or getting background or context, he’s thinking about recording his story, capturing an upcoming firefight, video-ing a daytime patrol, or just giving people an idea as to what his life is like. It’s intensely subjective – that’s the point. Plus, if he doesn’t like what he records, likelihood is he’ll delete it. Or, if there are bits that he’s embarrassed about, or don’t show him in a good light, delete them too.

Journalism is different. Journalism is not ‘objective’, but aspires to objectivity. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their book, The Elements of Journalism, objectivity is a process, not an end in itself. Absolute objectivity is impossible, but telling a story as objectively as possible is not. This means recording many different sources, presenting the stories fairly and in context, separating oneself (metaphorically rather than physically) from the action.

Horses mouth footage is inevitably subjective and partial. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it shouldn’t be seen as more truthful simply because it has been recorded by a so-called real person and because it has the immediacy and emotion missing from journalism.

Indeed it can, just like with big media, be stage managed. As Sarah Montague pointed out when talking to Captain Docherty and Major Parks, the soldiers filmed waited and timed their assault to coincide with the video.

But if, as Matthew Parris suggested in The Times last week, we are going through an ‘authenticity crisis’, you can be certain we’ll see lots more un-mediated, ‘authentic’ footage (broadcast on mainstream media), along with more emotion and more partiality.

Written by Martin Moore

August 2nd, 2007 at 6:38 pm

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