Fear and loathing in journalistic sensationalism | The Triangle

Fear and loathing in journalistic sensationalism

Photograph courtesy of Rs79 at Wikimedia Commons

There are many names in the great institution of journalism that can be considered legendary. However, very few of them can claim they changed journalism as we know it. Hunter S. Thompson was one of those legends, and gonzo was one of those game changers in journalism.

In an American counterculture sick and tired of the status quo, Thompson provided a fresh, first-person perspective of the significant events of the time.

That style, called gonzo, came out of the “New Journalism” movement of the 1970s, one that favored a combination of emotions and facts to not only tell a better story, one that put all the facts into a more human context, but to also report the news in a way that could capture and hold the attention of its readers.

However, Thompson would take “New Journalism” a step further, adding a combination of satire, sarcasm, profanity and social critique to create stories and pieces of journalism that were funny, raw and informative.

From “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Thompson took a humorous and deeper look into the dark side of American counterculture. These pieces would not only put him in the public eye but make him a well-known figure in political journalism and pop culture. Thompson helped advance the craft of not only journalism but writing as a whole, with a narrative style unlike anything seen before.

Now, 40 years later, the fact that Thompson’s legacy still stands in publications like “Rolling Stone” magazine shows the value of his style of journalism.

Despite all the positives Thompson and gonzo have brought to the metaphorical dance, some argue this style, as well as the “New Journalism” movement, have contributed to sensationalism in the field, seen primarily on television and less so in print and online publications.

Even Thompson himself felt that journalism didn’t work to its full potential without the emotion sensationalism employs.

“With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism,” he said in his book titled “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.”

However, despite the inherent lack of objectivity in what is considered “good journalism,” gonzo and New Journalism can not only be considered “good journalism,” but also, a significant improvement. The “New Journalism” movement came out of the feeling that traditional journalism was too impersonal and there was a need for a massive overhaul to put stories in a more human context, which is not only a goal in journalism but in writing overall.

So, “New Journalism” began to mutate from traditional journalism in the form of a narrative style, adding emotion and humor, creating a more human perspective which could change from person to person due to natural bias. The addition of humor and the human perspective also gave journalism a new sense of honesty, since we naturally use those tools to expose hidden truths.

As a result, “New Journalism” and its predecessors of a similar style not only became popular at a time of extreme political corruption and rising American counterculture but, 40 years after its rise, is still popular and the expectation from consumers.

Consumers, nowadays, don’t just want facts and numbers on a screen, but context and some levels of honesty. So, “New Journalism” and gonzo can not only be considered “good journalism” when done right, but it can even be better because it makes the story more open and honest, the ultimate job of a journalist.

So, are New Journalism and gonzo objective journalism? No. However, then again, it wasn’t designed to be, nor was life intended to be objective. Has it caused sensationalism in the media? Not enough to be blamed.

If anything, the full rise of sensationalism can be traced to networks such as CNN and FOX, who keep operating 24 hours a day, but with very little news coming across the desk. It can even go as far as the business side, who need to maintain a profit by putting up popular stories rather than the important ones.

As such, stories that usually wouldn’t get much attention end up getting the most attention, and the stories that should be getting the focus doesn’t. The greater focus of the Casey Anthony murder trial over the trial of Bernie Madoff, who stole approximately $20 billion in a Ponzi scheme at the height of the Great Recession, is one example of many. However, that’s another story for another time.

Will I go on an acid trip and drive drunk to Las Vegas? Definitely not. However, will I use this style to tell the best story possible? Absolutely. It may be New Journalism, but it’s the classic style that has made journalism better and decreased the amount of sensationalism. So, where’s my copy of “Rolling Stone”?