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What is Gonzo Journalism?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon996260 — On Aug 01, 2016

I am observing Yahoo go full Gonzo right now over Donald Trump. There is no objectivity or even an effort to project unbiased objectivity.

Verizon is buying them in a couple of months so I assume they have decided to devote their remaining time to add in making sure Trump is defeated in the general election. This is a serious faux pas from the Fourth Estate for an entity that calls itself a news outlet.

Personally, I think Gonzo journalism stinks, as you see an event through the eyes of a participant instead of a detached camera's eye. I want to make my own observations and determinations rather than be influenced by the author.

By dkarnowski — On Oct 20, 2010

When I think of gonzo journalism I also think Hunter S Thompson, he is obviously the father of the movement. The best thing about Thompson and his books is that there absolutely outrageous. The fact that this man could insert himself into these different kinds of situations and actually survived to write about them is mind-boggling.

I have nothing but respect for Hunter S Thompson in his means of gonzo journalism, but this doesn't mean that I necessarily agree or would trust a news report written by Hunter S Thompson.

I definitely understand the in his early days of learning journalism he was in fact a news reporter that wrote on objective principles with accuracy in mind. However, in his later years I truly wonder if he was still capable of producing such objective work as what a true piece of journalism reporting should be.

By youbiKan — On Oct 20, 2010

The only problem that I haven't gonzo style journalists is that they truly do discard objectivity when they do reporting. Part of my upbringing and training as a journalist I feel that it is truly important that one actually practice what journalism means. Journalism is supposed to be objective. You're not supposed to allow outside influences determine how you're going to report on a story.

While it is almost impossible to achieve absolute objectivity, it is possible to strive for it and there are different things you can do to ensure that you are not in searching your own opinion into your stories.

Gonzo journalism throws the ideals out of the window as if they are absolutely unnecessary and completely worthless to the concepts that they are trying to write about. There is no doubt that Hunter S Thompson's books are great, but as far as objective journalism they are far from it. One must stay objective to be a true journalist.

By Burlap — On Oct 20, 2010

I had a friend in college that I went to and we were on the student newspaper together. He loved Hunter S Thompson and his work. He loved this guy so much in the concepts of gonzo journalism that he actually happening gonzo journalism fist tattooed onto his forearm.

It might go to show just exactly how dedicated my colleague was because of the fact that he actually had this principle tattooed on his forearm. I think it's important to realize that when somebody takes a permanent tattoo like that they probably are serious about their love for that object or ideal.

This man was most certainly serious about gonzo journalism any most obviously inspired the way that he lived his everyday life and how he experienced the world.

By jeancastle00 — On Oct 20, 2010

As an aspiring journalist I have to tell you that gonzo journalism is my favorite type. Ever so popularized by Hunter S Thompson, gonzo journalism is now the most exciting field that I can imagine being a part of in the media industry.

To be able to jump right into a situation and experience it exactly as it is happening is to be more than just a reporter but it eventually were in every day news. I do think it is important to the at least objectively evaluate situations as a journalist, and you can only do this to a certain extent when you are practicing gonzo journalism.

There is no doubt that gonzo journalism is by far the most exciting type of journalism and a journalist can participate in the media industry.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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