Review: The Ethics of Gonzo Journalism

Press Room Co-ordinator Madeleine Laing reviews Friday’s event, ‘The Ethics of Gonzo Journalism’, featuring Robbie Coleman, Alice Workman, Adam Curley, and Connor Tomas O’Brien

Our host Robbie Coleman echoes a common sentiment when he admits to being a little under the weather this morning, a ‘visual reminder not to drink cask wine’, but our first conversation of the day  is fast-paced and fascinating – this is a topic that’s obviously just as interesting to the panelists as the audience, as they swap anecdotes and experiences of writing and publishing ‘gonzo’ articles.

From the start, no one is very confident with the term ‘gonzo journalism’ – Triple J Hack reporter Alice Workman says that she thinks of what she does more as ‘authentic voice journalism’ that represents people’s stories in their own words, and tries to be completely non-judgmental, rather than going out of your way to do something dangerous and make yourself the story. She says that gonzo comes from an old-fashioned school of journalism and while in the past it was the definition of breaking free from traditional news writing, it still came with its own rules, the stuff she does is more about getting rid of rules completely. In essence, Connor Tomas O’brien says, gonzo journalism is when you go into a story without knowing the outcome, being ready for wherever it leads you.

While Robbie admits that he hadn’t thought much about the specific ethical questions of gonzo journalism before this panel, it’s something Alice has to think about every day as an ABC reporter, especially doing drug and alcohol related stories where it’s unclear whether subjects are in a state to actually give informed consent, and can understand the ramification of taking  and talking about drugs on the TV or radio.

Connor say that he’s often in a position where he has to decide how much dirt to reveal about subjects, and that a lot depends on if you want to write more than one thing about the group or person – as soon as the first piece is published you’re exposed, and they can close off. You have to decide if you want to maintain relationships and go deeper in the story, or just publish the one piece and move on. Though he says that groups who perceive themselves as being consistently misrepresented will still let you in if you write something even only vaguely more positive than the rest of their press.

In terms of the the ethics of what conversations are ‘on the record’ for journalists who embed themselves into communities, writer and musician Adam Curley thinks that  ‘if you identify yourself as a writer or a journalist, everything else after that is on the record’. Most of the panelists have had experience with subjects wanting to see stories before they go to air or print, and Alice says that often it’s matter of courtesy – if someone’s really honest with you and in a difficult situation, it might not be necessary to send them the story, but it is a decent thing to do.Adam says it’s often hard to know how someone might react to a story about them anyway, that sometimes you might write terrible things about someone and them love it. Connor avoids showing people stories he’s written about them when he’s worried they might be offended, because the act of letting them read it is pretty much admitting that you might have said something negative and makes them suspicious.

Adam also points out that what politicians and other public figures think of as journalism is so far behind what news outlets are actually doing, that they don’t realise things like direct messages can be published as part of news stories, and get people in trouble.The panellists agree that Vice’s rising popularity in the early 2000s signalled the reemergence of gonzo, and gonzo-style writing becoming more popular in news, rather than just weird cultural, druggy stories.

When discussing the difference between publishing work yourself or going through an organisation, Robbie, who’s recently done some work for Vice, said it was very useful to use their name to get access to people and experiences he wouldn’t do regularly, though Alice says it’s not the same at all for ABC, because of the regulatory and OH&S issues. Though she also says that most of the time their bosses trust them to make good decisions, and they can go places a lot of other ABC shows can’t. When a questioner asks whether these regulatory decisions might be silencing some voices Alice says that it’s about knowing how to work the system – if it’s a story you need to tell, you have to do the work to make it fit to the guidelines.