Gonzo journalism brings to mind images of Hunter Thompson; drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll; psychedelic buses and campaign trails. Wikipedia says it’s “a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative.” The Urban Dictionary points out that Hunter Thompson’s gonzo journalism was “neither fiction or nonfiction, but a weird category in between the two, to show that ‘fiction’ and ‘journalism’ are only artificial categories and that they are both means to get to the same end.” but even Thompson recognized limits, according to the Urban Dictionary, saying that, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a failed attempt at Gonzo Journalism, for it varied too much from the truth and slipped a great deal into the realm of fiction.”
I’ve been thinking about gonzo journalism because, at the Daily Planet, we constantly have to re-explain what we mean by citizen journalism and what we mean by journalism. One example: a recent story on the Jefferson Avenue Bikeway by Mike Jones. It’s a good, solid story, but one of the sentences made me stop cold: “I spoke last, saying that the bikeway will be used by Minneapolitans as well as St. Paulites, and that I disapproved of the amendment, but welcomed the overall resolution.”
Our writer had testified in favor of the resolution, at a city council meeting where he was reporting about the meeting and the issue. That’s definitely not the detachment and objectivity advised in the journalism canons of ethics. By those rules, our writer should not have written the story because he testified — but even if he didn’t testify, he shouldn’t have written it because he is a biker and a cycling advocate. That means he is not impartial.
Of course, you could argue (and I would) that in a debate over bikes on public roads, no one is impartial — everyone is a biker or a motorist or a pedestrian and has an interest in how the roads are constructed. (Maybe hermits could be impartial, but they likely wouldn’t emerge in public to do any reporting.)
One easy answer would have been to say we wouldn’t publish the story — but it’s a really good story about an important issue, and the writer did cover all sides of the debate at the meeting. So we published, with a double disclaimer from both the author and the editor:
Full disclosure: I am a member of multiple cycling advocacy groups and a year-round bicycle commuter.
Editor’s note: Where is the line between being a citizen and involved, and being a detached and neutral reporter? For citizen journalists, that can be a tough call. In this story, Mike got involved, and spoke at the hearing, but we think he turned in a good story that reports what all sides had to say. If you disagree, tell us so in the comments — or write a longer commentary for the Free Speech Zone.
One of the joys and challenges of editing the Daily Planet comes from our commitment to citizen journalism. In a nutshell, that means that we publish articles on an equal-opportunity basis, whether the writer is a “professional” or a “citizen journalist.” (Both of those are in quotes because the definitions are widely contested, and I’m not going to get into that argument right now.)
The joy comes from meeting and publishing new writers — and from mentoring, editing and advising to help writers become better at the craft. The challenge comes from trying to reconcile the traditional rules of journalism with non-traditional approaches to the game.
A St. Paul city council meeting is a long way from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and we are not about to plunge wholesale into gonzo journalism. I still think it’s usually better for a writer to have some distance from a reported story, as distinct from a blog post or column or another article clearly identified as opinion. For us, the key to publishing any story where the writer is involved in the story or events is to clearly identify what’s going on.
With that in mind — we look forward to a couple of promised “gonzo journalism” stories from a 24-hour bike ride in South Minneapolis and from the DFL convention. As always, we welcome your comments and feedback on both policies and individual stories.