Gonzo Journalism

By Yasmin Ayture

Gonzo, you may have heard the name but do you know what it is or, for that matter, why it goes by this name? The word Gonzo was South Boston Irish slang for the last man standing after an all-night drinking marathon. So what is its connection to Journalism I hear you ask? Well in reply we give you Hunter S Thompson, the journalist who worked for The Boson Globe and it was the magazine’s editor Bill Cardoso in 1970 that referenced the term as a style of journalistic writing that Thompson used. There are other intriguing ideas about where the word Gonzo came from, so it will probably never be completely set in stone. Read more in Gonzo Journalism.

Regarding what Gonzo refers to, it is a type of journalism that took the world by storm in at the time with its revolutionary perspective of bringing the first person into the reporting, instead of making reportage a merely dry and factual pursuit. The writers on their style spoke in the first person directly imbedded their emotional response to the news piece and presented in almost as if the reader were there experiencing it with them

Hearing a story on the news may well be helpful and important for knowing what’s unfolding around the world but it is often told in a factual way that is removed of emotion, given just as pure news as if the journalist has no feelings or thoughts about the event. Gonzo journalism’s power is not held in its factual ability, but within its intense, emotive powerful tone that can harmonise fact and fiction at the same time.

It is to purposely not ask those conventional questions of why, what, where, why and when, but to share what it was really like to have been there in the very moment. Hunter S Thompson, a journalist and author from America, founded the Gonzo journalism movement of the 1970s, breaking free from the purely objective style of reportage that is and remains the dominant way.

Setting ablaze the standards for journalism with the Gonzo style, it is the one experiencing the event, scene or news who is the central protagonist. Sharing and divulging what you saw and heard, putting yourself back into the story and telling things as they happened for your own senses and experience.

The readers can receive a version of the truth with Gonzo journalism, although some may ask, whose truth is it? Yet, when a story is being told only objectively, without the interjection of any personal perspective, again we can ask, is this actually the only true way of telling what happened? Inevitably, things appear to be left out and missing when written in a purely objective way with no emotional depth.

So often, objective journalism seeks to capture ‘the truth’, as if this is not a multi-dimensional and faceted experience. Seeking to challenge the idea that there is only one truth is a challenging experience in itself because it means deviating from normal conduct of reporting.

The benefits of Gonzo journalism include the long-time emersion that the journalists have in a particular place with specific people who they come to understand well. Of course, it is paramount for there to remain a level of recognition of the biased perspectives and opinions you come with, namely the thoughts and experiences that may colour and influence how you process situations or conversations.

Yet, much like an ethnography, Gonzo journalism invites the journalist to share a perhaps more deep and intimate version of what has happened. Danish writer Peter Hog has written “There is only one way to understand another culture. Living it.”, reminding of the need to immerse oneself if ever true understanding is even close to being attainable.

Indeed, with conventional journalism, the journalist has of course lived the story they are reporting and has developed many thoughts and feelings about it, but that experience gets filtered out when they report. Retrieving this sense of reality and emotion within the text creates a virtual passage which the readers can walk down to experience the events and people that the piece is about.

Whilst this particular piece is a novel rather than reporting, it nonetheless is a quintessential piece of Gonzo journalism in action: Hunter S Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, which has a character named Dr. Gonzo, an attorney, merges fact with fiction. Within this writing, we can consistently hear Thompson’s voice putting forward his own viewpoints.

The more opinionated the better. To be neutral is the furthest away aim from this style of writing that seeks to really put the person reporting in the driving seat. Another example of this type of journalist is Lester Bangs, a notable American music journalist who was considered one of the greatest rock critics. He followed the Gonzo style of writing by featuring his own first-person perspectives of the rock concerts he attended, bringing the music scene to life through his human viewpoint.

Nowadays, Vice Media is a well-known outlet that uses the Gonzo style of journalism, recognising the value of writing in a way that breaks the current boundaries. If you have enjoyed reading this, why not read Coffee and Books.