Gonzo Journalism is a term that you may have heard as a nod to the old journalistic style of the counterculture. Some still use it to refer to a moment where journalists (and one journalist in particular) broke the mold to connect with audiences with a truer voice. However, Gonzo journalism wasn’t a one-time thing back in the 1970s. Instead, it evolved over time into an immersive journalism style that remains popular today.
Granted, the approaches, voices, and platforms have changed considerably over the decade. But, there is still a spark of the original left behind. So what is Gonzo Journalism? What is so special about this movement and how does it relate to modern journalism? More importantly, is its place in modern journalism a positive or negative factor now?
The origin of Gonzo Journalism
To understand what Gonzo Journalism is, we have to go back to its source. It all began with Hunter S. Thompson. These days, the character of Thompson has become a little watered down with anecdotes about his later life and the infamous story of what Johnny Depp did with his ashes. To that point, many will know of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas through Depp’s portrayal of Thompson in the movie adaptation.
If you haven’t read the book, do. Then read some of his work as a journalist. This is where you will find the origin of Gonzo: something that began with an account from the Kentucky Derby and later developed into one of the most important genres of journalism in the 1970s. The concept was new, raw and interesting to both editors and readers.
Creating a more immersive experience with a subjective voice
The basic idea was a shift in focus away from the objective to the subjective. Typically, audiences expected an objective approach to the news. Reporters would present the facts of the story with no attempt to bring in any form of personal opinion. This is understandable. It removes all sense of bias from the report so that readers can make up their own minds. Ideally, these objective reports would have no sense of leaning to one side of the political spectrum or the other. There would be no moral judgment on a court ruling. Reporters were merely the middlemen on the outside looking in.
Hunter S. Thompson’s trip and subsequent report from the Kentucky Derby changed all of that. He was no longer the outsider looking in: instead, he was right at the heart of it all and an integral part of the story. The narrative of his work revolved around his experience and the audience was gripped as they followed his tale. It was closer to literary work than any traditional form of journalism.
This all meant a subjective view where the reporter became a major player with opinions to share on the events. There was no attempt to hide any bias in the work or any views on the people and situations involved. At the time, this was radical and would have been a shock to many. But, Gonzo journalism was born and work make waves in the industry in this era.
Does the Gonzo approach still exist in journalism today?
The big question now for journalists is whether there is still a place for Gonzo journalism, or whether this is merely the norm now. Many reporters will talk in the first person to discuss their personal narrative and opinions of events that took place. It remains popular with readers that can relate to their viewpoint and feel vindicated. It also gives reporters a more “human” side that is important for building trust with an audience.
If you want a prime example of the Gonzo approach in action in 2020 then you should look no further than Vice. Both the magazine and TV network follow in the footsteps of their Gonzo ancestors with a raw take on that “immersive” journalism that stemmed from the original movement. In a way, you can also see the influence of this immersive approach on the many people that became vloggers to share their experiences with the world. In fact, this immersive approach is apparent in many different outlets and platforms. There are pros and cons here.
The positive side of modern immersive journalism
On the positive side, more and more reporters have the confidence to use a natural voice and to speak out to an audience. The “truth” of a situation and its emotive impact on those immediately affected isn’t lost behind the dry facts of a completely neutral and objective report. The pieces can engage an audience that may not have been inclined to read up on the event beforehand. Also, while one demographic may deride a piece for an “ill-informed” or “incorrect” opinion over a matter, another will be able to relate and feel that someone is finally speaking up for them. After all, there should be freedom of speech in the press and opinion is a part of that.
The negative side of modern immersive journalism
Still, there are some negative sides to a journalistic world that is so reliant on this Gonzo style. Anyone can have a voice and share their opinion and that can result in an over-saturated mess of stories and blogs. The truth and important facts may be lost. We have also created a society where bias is the norm. There aren’t neutral newspapers and television stations anymore.
Each one has a bias towards one side of the political spectrum – even if they are only marginally to the left or right. Some will try and hide that, with varying results, and others will blatantly show their support for laws and politicians on the front page. There is also the fact that it takes a lot to really shock an audience anymore.
Gonzo journalism has evolved into a few different styles in modern media. There are a few writers and outlets, like Vice, that follow Thompson’s lead more clearly. But, there are also countless other voices shouting opinions and making vlogs. If you want to channel the spirit of Gonzo yourself, choose your path carefully.