‘Street Journalism’: the Remedy to Our Distrust of Mainstream Media?

Image taken from The Guardian

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a certain brand of content quickly becoming popular on YouTube and social media. This content, in my mind, in some ways encapsulates the core principles of journalism better than any of the major media outlets currently do. While in many cases this is happening inadvertently, I think the genre’s rising popularity demonstrates a public appetite for a new way of understanding current affairs and the people who shape them.

The content I am talking about here is street-level, usually one-on-one, low(er) budget interviews with members of the general public. They range slightly in their approach — some adopting a vlog structure, whereas others create a more comedic-investigative journalism tone. Either way the outcome is the same, an often surprisingly informative insight into the insanity of the modern-day.

Their popularity in no small part comes from the fact that they are, simply put, very entertaining. But I also think these content creators are becoming widely supported for the very reasons that mainstream journalism is quickly falling out of favour; they are sincere, inquisitive, and aren’t trying to shape the content they receive into some kind of narrative. Humourous, open-minded, and genuinely interested in the people they are talking to, they bear very little resemblance to the corporate cliches of ‘professional journalism’. This makes them seem more genuine to those they talk too, allowing them to quickly build a good rapport with almost everyone that they meet.

If you have viewing habits similar to my own, you might be familiar with at least one of these names. I’m talking about channels like All Gas No Brakes, Philip Solo, Sneako, and accounts like Humans Of New York and New York Nico. Their shared theme is very basic, go into the street and interview people. In of itself, this is not a new concept. But there is a stark contrast between what these accounts are doing and the work journalists and other entertainers have been doing over the past few decades. If you haven’t already, watch one of their videos and you will understand what I mean. While they certainly have a lot of more ‘standard’ content, such as vlogs and fad challenges, you will also find videos interviewing sex workers, rioters, and of course the public.

What’s the Big Deal?

In a world where distrust in media sources is rampant and ‘fake news’ is becoming a major force in the political sphere, street-level journalistic content might be the saving grace for those who still want to stay in touch with what everyday people are thinking. In a way, these videos embody a form of gonzo-style journalism adapted to the age of social media. There is after all hardly any attempt on behalf of the content creators to produce ‘objective’ reporting. Instead, they are focused entirely on the subjective, documenting the moment, meanwhile finding the wild and bizarre along the way. There is no ‘narrative’ being shaped in the editing room. The story that ends up in the final cut comes right from the people themselves.

To this end, it’s the opposite of everything mainstream journalism is becoming increasingly despised for. However you want to describe it — institutional, corporate, professional — mainstream media is losing credibility because it consistently seems to be moving away from fact-finding and towards fact-shaping. You don’t have to get into the realm of conspiracies to believe that a majority of news outlets have a story they want to create, and then employ people to go out and find it. Not surprisingly, many now seeing this as disingenuous. The all-too-asked question reporters receive of “who are you with?” is really asking “what is your agenda?”

In these videos, no such agenda really exists. Or, at least, there is not an agenda to skew the reality of the event into something it isn’t. Do they make the events seem absurd or make the people seem ridiculous in edits? Absolutely. But many it not all of them are absurd and ridiculous. No truth is being hidden here.

For this reason, the videos also come across as being much more sincere. There is no power dynamic between the interviewer and the interviewed. Whereas a CNN, Fox News, or any other media journalist might wade through the crowd, press card in hand, trying to get the perfect angle to tell their story, these folks are simply a part of the ride.

There is no corporation behind them either. There’s no team of investors and board members, no multitude of merging interests skewing the end result of their investigation. 24hr news cycle? No need. One to two posts a week will suffice. They are certainly still bound to a production schedule, but given it is not literally all the time, there is less of a need to ‘drive’ the content.

Example: All Gas No Breaks - Proud Boys Rally

In a recent episode of All Gas No Breaks, host Andrew Callaghan attends a Proud Boys rally in Portland, Oregon. Risking public ridicule as well as physical assault, Andrew attends this rally after a number of independent journalists had been attacked the day before at another Proud Boys event. This was under the assumption that they were a part of Antifa or some form of leftist-Media: neither in this case were true.

All Gas No Breaks: Proud Boys Rally — Oct 3, 2020

Alex Kantrowitz spoke about Andrew in a recent article that’s worth reading if you are looking for some context on this channel in particular.

In this, Andrew’s latest venture, the video gives a surprising level of insight into the ritualistic insanity of these rallies — as well as their proclivity for violence. While neither of these observations are that new, I think Andrew’s naturally disarming demeanor gets some of the attendees to speak more candidly than they would to other more ‘established’ journalists. As a result, you get a feel for the diversity of motivations for people joining, as well as the range of rationales they employ to justify their beliefs: anxiety over leftist revolt, patriotic love, and xenophobia to name but a few.

On certain occasions, Andrew’s interview style also gives him the ability to question and even challenge attendees on their beliefs. In one instance, a Proud Boys supporter admits to feeling disturbed by the video of George Floyd being killed by police. When asked if this meant he supported the ‘initial’ BLM movement, it clearly causes the man some difficulty to admit, leading him to quickly ending his interview.

Progress in changing someone’s mind? Maybe not. But it’s not very often that you get to see anyone get even this close to challenging a political activist in such a way on their home turf.

Journalism? Or something else?

I would find it very difficult to believe that many of the aforementioned content producers actually consider themselves ‘journalists’ of any sort. I use journalism here not really as an occupation title, but more as a description of their purpose: observing an event or encounter and sharing their experience with the public. Yet even here journalism may not the best term to use.

The AmericaPress Institute calls journalism the “activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information”, although this seems too broad. This is not just fact-finding, it’s experience sharing. It runs much deeper and plays are a far more important role. Wikipedia calls journalism the “unbiased production and distribution of reports on current or past events based on facts and supported with proofs or [evidence].” So, unless we commit ourselves to denouncing almost all major media outlets, this too seems a bit optimistic.

Maybe they don’t have to be considered journalists. This content honestly seems far more like entertainment than anything else. However, as I mentioned before, I do not think this does their work justice, as they often do an unparalleled job of documenting the day-to-day lives of society's most outrageous and yet strangely familiar elements.

Perhaps in years to come these videos will be viewed as creating a form of microhistory. What better way to understand the insanity of 2020 than letting it come straight from the horse's mouth. Not from some news anchor or press release, but from the very people who were on the ground when things went sideways.

Whatever you want to call it, I think it’s fantastic and very much needed. Far too often we fool ourselves into thinking that day-to-day life is anything short of insane. The things we become accustomed to are no less outrageous than the things we perceive as unusual. This content shows that. What is weird and outlandish for us, makes perfect sense to those being interviewed: and visa versa.

It holds a mirror up to society's face. Just as you get comfortable watching the circus around you, getting settled into your seat, a video will pop up that hits too close to home and reminds you that you are in fact part of the show.

While every day mainstream media seems to swing more and more brazenly between journalism and propaganda, this grass-roots type of ‘street journalism’ reminds us that instead of finding a narrative, seeing the ‘here and now’ for what it is, is often far more important than seeing it as what you want it to be.

Student of politics and history. Enjoying the circus before the tent burns down. Founder of Practicing Politics — https://medium.com/practicing-politics