There is a certain irony that in a world of increasing globalisation, traditional international journalism is facing difficult times. When it’s time for media outlets to tighten their belts, full-time foreign correspondent jobs are often the first cut, and clearly this can pose risks to the quality of reporting.
One alternative to this is “parachute journalism,” where a reporter will fly in, cover an event, and get out when they have what they need.
While many experienced journalists do this well, in many places — including Sub-Saharan Africa — this practice does nothing to discourage reporting on events from a foreign perspective, with all the post-colonial stereotypes of war, corruption and famine that go along with them.
On the other hand, there are some arguments that perhaps even big African media outlets and local reporters aren’t doing a much better job of reporting on the continent.
I’m not suggesting there is one solution to change everything in the African media landscape and create sustainable, inclusive and objective coverage — just as I couldn’t do that for the very uncertain Canadian media landscape.
Citizen journalism a positive move
I do, however, think there are some ways that journalism could be better for everyone, and particularly those who are actually the subjects of the reporting and the communities most affected by the events.
For me that has been one of the most positive aspects of a move towards citizen journalism.
Large media outlets have started to embrace citizen journalism, including CNN’s iReport.
It allows viewers to contribute to coverage by sending in text, video and photos as supplements to CNN’s “standard” coverage.
“Radar” building collaborations
One organization that takes a slightly different approach is Radar, a London-based organization that uses existing technology like mobile phones to find citizen journalism from marginalized communities, then works with established media like the Guardian and the BBC to produce collaborative pieces.
What this organization does address is the often-present gap between those who are producing the news and those who actually live in the communities reflected in the reporting. As a not-for-profit organization, Radar does focus on a particular type of journalism that promotes social issues, rather than everyday sports entertainment and politics.
Right now Radar is working in Sierra Leone, Kenya, as well as the UK.
For media outlets looking for this type of content, it offers on-the-ground coverage and compelling stories from communities that would not be as accessible to the average foreign correspondent. Radar’s pilot project during the 2012 presidential elections in Sierra Leone was a perfect example of how powerful and effective a network of local reporters can be in painting a more holistic picture of a complex situation.
It also increases the possibility of getting breaking news faster using social media than it would take to send a reporter to the scene, as they showed by coordinating their reporting during the Westgate Mall attacks in Kenya.
“Citizen journalists” the beneficiaries
For the citizen journalists, Radar provides an opportunity to receive better pay than they would reporting for most local media and creates other outlets for aspiring news-gatherers. What Radar does not change is who pays the wages.
It still means local reporters have to rely on foreign media outlets for financial support and does not shift the long-standing power imbalances between donor and recipient.
For instance, with all the funding coming from the UK, it would be difficult for employees in Sierra Leone to feel like they have agency in the financial future of the organization.
I admit that is is a difficult problem to address because the money has to come from somewhere and though it would be more sustainable to have it locally sourced and managed, it is rarely available.
This relationship between citizen journalist and foreign media outlet also doesn’t address who the journalism is being created for. Is an article in the Guardian about something happening in Freetown created for Sierra Leonean readers or British ones? Whose values will be reflected in the reporting?
However, the solution to this problem may be the same technology that helps to create the journalism in the first place. Because of infrastructure needs, cost and logistics, television and newspapers are not an option in many places, especially rural areas. For these reasons, radio has been by far the most popular form of media.
But this is changing.
Though internet cafes and home internet certainly exist in most places around the world these days, it’s mobile technology that is bringing information to people at an astonishing speed.
Now, anyone with a phone and some data can read an article from anywhere in the world. And if these international news outlets are aware of who their new audience is, hopefully they will do whatever they can to better reflect their readership, no matter what country they live in.
Damon van der Linde is a journalist and writer based in Montreal Canada. He has a vast experience practicing journalism and writing from several African countries including Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Zambia and Malawi. He has reported for a variety of print,television, radio and online media outlets. He also worked as a journalism mentor and trainer for local journalists in Sierra Leone through the organisation Journalists for Human Rights.
Title image: Radar training in Kabala, Sierra Leone’s poorest district where there is little power and often no access to the internet