Course Unit JG160

Gonzo Journalism

Course unit author

Pamela Monk

PennState University

Learning objectives

After studying this course, you will be able to:

  • Define gonzo journalism and explain this journalistic genre;
  • Explain the reasons for this concept why Hunter S. Thompson coined this genre;
  • Give an overview of the historic development of gonzo journalism;
  • Reflect this genre critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract Gonzo Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Gonzo Journalism is important zu know

The term "Gonzo journalism" was coined to describe the style and writings of Hunter S. Thompson, a novelist and journalist who used unconventional methods and techniques to relate the American experience throughout his career. Thompson began to build a reputation as a journalist by covering subterranean, counter-culture fragments of society in America during the 1960s and 70s. Thompson - a reckless personality in his own right - gravitated towards sects that rejected and challenged traditional thought and a status quo turned stale.

Walk into any journalism school or class and there will be fundamental principles that are held sacrosanct in the business. Objectivity sets the tone and facts flesh out the story of a piece considered ‘hard news.' Items within the human-interest, entertainment arena are considered ‘soft news' and tend to allow more flexibility in tone. However, truth acts as the key to the kingdom and journalists bear the responsibility to communicate and relay important information to an unaware audience. Hunter S. Thompson perverted these standards with great effect and success. 

His first book followed the lives the motorcycle gang outfit, the Hell's Angels. The research and insight gathered in Hell's Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga is unquestionably valuable in its detail and firsthand account of an enigmatic collection of outlaws. Thompson, in fact, inserts himself and becomes a character to the story, which is considered a violation of the traditional journalistic approach. Rather than take an unbiased and omniscient voice, Thompson reports from the front lines with an unfiltered point-of-view that's often compelling, hilarious and full of angst. Indeed, Thompson manages to dispel rumors and urban legends about the feared motorcycle gang – a fact-checking skill found in any laudable journalist – while ultimately confirming the ruthless and dangerous nature of its members that mainstream America feared in the first place.

Thompson flirted with fact and fiction in a number of his contributions to the written word. As a correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson would occasionally fabricate stories or anecdotes for his own amusement. Paradoxically, Thompson often combated the sensationalism of mainstream media with his own versions of hyperbole and fantasy. Journalists typically kept their opinions in the dark for the sake of integrity and impartiality. To sever the trust of the reader was considered the ultimate betrayal and a total defeat in the purpose of journalistic endeavors. Thompson scoffed at this sacrilege by creating content that served to relate his experience and worldview, often with comedic results. In fact, during the 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign, Thompson wrote an article that detailed presidential candidate Ed Muskie's addiction to the drug Ibogaine, a bold-faced lie that was subsequently published. By developing a persona and reputation as an unreliable narrator, readers could easily become familiar with idiosyncratic characteristics inherent in Thompson's articles, making his voice stand-out among the herd. Despite being a pain to his editors, Thompson's own drug use and fantastical inventions endeared him to readers. Consequentially, Thompson's cache rose and garnered a cult-following. 

As someone who believed objectivity to be innately impossible and boring, Thompson championed a voice of resistance. America was experiencing a transformation during the late 1960s, and people like Thompson had their fingers to the pulse of change. The attitude captured in the early writings of Hunter S. Thompson are still revered and imitated today. However, the current standard of journalistic practice still maintains the basic tenets that Thompson circumvented and challenged. Still, there are many renegade journalists re-wiring the conventions and carrying the torch that Hunter S. Thompson ignited in the late 20th Century. Some may consider Matt Taibbi as the successor of the Gonzo journalist mantle. Taibbi, also a contributor to Rolling Stone, writes in a similar vein – unapologetic, hilarious, invective – but more traditional in aim. Whereas Thompson was an innovator and trailblazer, Taibbi has tendencies akin of old-school reporting. Still, the stamp of Gonzo journalism is evident in Taibbi's fight against a status quo riddled in complacency and corruption.

Journalism is constantly evolving and often under self-examination by those in the business. Much criticism is directed at outlets that show favoritism or bias in their coverage, because facts are believed to be defined in black and white ink. Disseminating information and truth to a society at-large comes with great responsibility, but it need not silence the voice of the correspondent. Gonzo journalism makes no mistake about its leanings, because freedom of expression is essential to the human experience. Thompson understood this and his influence on journalism and pop-culture are cemented in history.