What is Gonzo Journalism? Definition, Tips, and Examples

Introduction

Journalism has always been about telling facts in an unbiased and objective way, almost like a third-person observer. But around the 1960s New Journalism, also sometimes called Gonzo journalism, was born.

Gonzo journalism runs counter to the most widely accepted notion about journalism: objectivity. It is a subjective form of journalism that focuses on the personal opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the reporter covering a story.

Objective journalism is one of the main reasons that American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. — Hunter S. Thompson

Writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, etc., are said to have popularized the style. Instead of being boxed in by editorial policy and guidelines of the newspapers, gonzo journalists explore a more creative yet non-fiction style of writing that aims to infuse reporting with human emotions.

In this article, we will explore the definition and history of gonzo journalism along with examples of a few famous gonzo journalists. We will also learn about the difference between traditional and gonzo journalism.

But first, let’s define gonzo journalism.

What is Gonzo Journalism?

Gonzo journalism is defined as a style of journalism that relays facts in a subjective manner, often infused with humor, sarcasm, or critiquing of society and culture. Where traditional journalism takes objectivity as its north star in reporting any story, gonzo journalism is unrestrained by such high objective standards.

A gonzo piece of journalism is supposed to stir emotions by putting us in the reporter’s shoes and letting us see the world through their eyes.

Editors who work with gonzo journalists know better than to touch up the piece too much for fear of losing the reporter’s voice as that is vital to the story itself. A gonzo piece gives us a first-person narrative seeped in the reporter’s subjective reality.

The personality of the writer shines through in gonzo journalism pieces, the feelings that they go through, the things they care about, their raw opinions, all matter in a gonzo journalism story.

What is Gonzo Journalism Used For?

Gonzo journalism takes us through a subjective reality — the reality of the reporter. We experience, feel, hear, and see whatever the reporter experiences, feels, hears, and sees.

Gonzo-style journalism is used as a strong critique of societal issues, political satire, or just a humorous take on events. A bland reporting of the objective facts doesn’t suit some writers or reporters who want to express more than strict editorial guidelines may allow.

Hence, the use of gonzo journalism is a valuable tool to get your two cents across while also relaying facts. In gonzo journalism, the reporter, rather than being detached, helps to add value and personality to the story through the first-person narration.

Why is it Called Gonzo Journalism?

Today, the term ‘gonzo’ has come to be used for anything that is bizarre or unconventional, but the term was first coined by the Boston Globe’s Editor, Bill Cardoso, who claimed that it meant ‘last man standing’.

Bill Cardoso borrowed the Boston-Irish slang to describe Hunter S. Thompson’s first-person narrative reports where the writer would go on a never-ending drug and alcohol spree, getting himself into wild adventures along the way.

Brief History of Gonzo Journalism

Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ was the first-ever acknowledged piece of gonzo journalism. Published in 1970, the article is supposed to be about the Kentucky Derby but goes into vivid detail about Hunter S. Thompson’s drunken misadventures along with his British colleague.

Hunter S. Thompson’s had a disdain for objective journalism and considered it to be the reason behind the decadence of politics. He believed in straight talk and his writing includes critical commentary of the society and politics of his times.

Tom Wolfe was a contemporary of Hunter S. Thompson and is equally regarded to be the founding father of the gonzo genre of journalism. Tom Wolfe took matters further by inventing a style of journalism that straddled between objective reporting and fictional creativity.

Gonzo journalism has come a long way since the time of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. It is now regarded as the go-to style for some internet-based magazines, like The Vice.

Gonzo Journalism vs Traditional Journalism?

Journalism majors are taught that objectivity is the heart of journalism and that a good story is always based on objective facts that can be confirmed by anyone. But gonzo journalism isn’t like traditional journalism.

Shunning traditional journalism’s principles, gonzo journalists do not just report the story, they become the story. While reporting on the notorious bikers gang, Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson infiltrated and reported events from inside the gang, with great risk to his own life.

Instead of being objective observers, gonzo journalists often are the protagonists of their own stories.

Examples of Famous Gonzo Journalists?

Here is a list of famous gonzo journalists who broke away from the norms of traditional journalism:

1. Tom Wolfe

Oftentimes known as the pioneer of gonzo journalism along with Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe wrote a sarcastic piece about the New Yorker, Tiny Mummies, which launched him as the irreverent leader of the gonzo journalism movement. He called his style of gonzo journalism the “hyperbolic style”.

2. Hunter S. Thompson

Without a doubt, the most well-known gonzo journalist on this list. Hunter S. Thompson had a unique style of making the story as much about himself, at the center of the action, as it was about the event he was sent to report on. This is brilliantly portrayed in his first-ever gonzo piece ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, which you can read here.

Other awesome writings by this great of the gonzo journalism world are: Hells Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

3. Joan Didion

Joan Didion is another stalwart of the gonzo or new journalism era of the 1960s and 70s. Unlike Thompson, Joan Didion kept a respectable distance from what she was reporting on and focused on laying the scene in front of the readers in a way that conveyed a feeling of sharing in the experience. “Slouching Towards Bethlem” is Joan Didion’s classic gonzo reporting on the hippy culture of the 1960s.

Final Remarks

Gonzo journalism became a part of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s that upended set standards of objectivity in the world of 20th Century journalism.

It has lived on through the powerful writings of its pioneers and adopters. And it is through the power of this kind of writing that it still lives on as a credible style of reporting.

Also, check out What is Yellow Journalism? Definition, History, and Examples

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