The traditional role of a journalist has often been that of an objective outsider who simply observes and reports a newsworthy event, not an active participant in or instigator of that event. A responsible journalist could still express personal thoughts and other subjective observations, but there needs to be a clear separation between the reporting journalist and the event itself. This journalistic philosophy does not hold true, however, in a radical form of news reporting known as gonzo journalism.
In gonzo journalism, a journalist is free to participate in events and circumstances which may themselves be considered newsworthy. A gonzo journalist can actively participate in a political candidate's campaign without making any effort to appear politically neutral or unbiased. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of gonzo journalism is an almost complete personal immersion into the world a gonzo journalist ultimately wishes to expose or record for posterity.
While a traditional journalist might interview drug dealers or drug addicts for an expose on the local drug trade, for example, a gonzo journalist may actually participate in the shady deals and backroom exploits of a drug kingpin or a local gang. The purpose of gonzo journalism would be to produce a brutally honest or highly subjective journalistic piece based on the real experience of a trained reporter writing from the inside. A gonzo journalist is not necessarily protected from law enforcement efforts, so even the legal ramifications of the journalist's actions could become part of the news story.
Perhaps the most famous gonzo journalist was the late Hunter S. Thompson, a self-styled renegade reporter who frequently wrote pieces for Rolling Stone magazine while living a no-holds-barred personal lifestyle. Ostensibly assigned to cover the 1972 presidential campaign, for example, Thompson instead chose to deviate from the campaign trail and report on his own drug and alcohol-fueled adventures. His book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail has since become a classic example of gonzo journalism.
Critics of gonzo journalism consider the practice to be little more than sanctioned hedonism. Responsible journalists should not take it upon themselves to instigate news items or become completely immersed in the very culture or circumstances they have been assigned to observe. Gonzo journalists are a rare breed of writer, often possessing larger-than-life personalities and a "gonzo" or go-for-broke approach to the subject at hand.
While some reporters may choose to explore "participatory journalism" under the strict guidance and supervision of a superior, gonzo journalists often take it upon themselves to experience the event on a personal level first, then rework their observations into acceptable journalistic form later. While a magazine or newspaper may underwrite some of the gonzo journalist's expenses while on assignment, a true gonzo journalist is keenly aware that he or she is working without a net.