Professionalising Citizen Journalism

January 25, 2016

By Adam Barr

“We all work in closing spaces around the world where journalism is becoming more and more difficult.”

The challenges of reporting on places and conflicts forgotten by the mainstream media were laid bare on Tuesday 19 January, as the Frontline Club hosted an in-depth discussion on the professionalisation of citizen journalism.

Trevor Snapp, director of programs at Nuba Reports, chaired a discussion that ranged from the increasingly savvy media strategies employed by governments, to the dangers faced by emboldened eyewitnesses looking for a big payout.

Snapp explained that the need for such a panel came about “because of the reality that the world is increasingly difficult to do journalism in” – and pointed to countries such as “Yemen, Libya, many parts of China, many parts of India, many parts of Pakistan and many parts of Iran” as examples of this.

Jacqueline Geis, chief operating officer of Videre est Credere, found one solution to the challenges faced by citizen journalists who are working to document governmental abuses.

“Governments are becoming increasingly creative in their targeting of civil society, by including new codicils and amendments into press laws (…) People that are committing these crimes and atrocities are getting smart to when Western media shows up and when they don’t show up.”

Geis continued: “You see this a lot in election cycles: that people that want to manipulate election cycles are not doing it three months before the election, they’re doing it two years before that election happens (…) So having the continuous presence on the ground makes a valuable difference in telling the complete side of the story.”

John D McHugh, award-winning photojournalist, filmmaker and co-founder of Verifeye Media, agreed on the importance of eyewitness accounts. He likewise shared in Geis‘ optimism for the potential benefits of citizen journalism, as opposed to more traditional forms of journalism: “The closed space, the budgets, the restrictions and the authorities that close these spaces can be opened up in other ways.”

Chavala Madlena, a freelance journalist and producer, agreed that more traditional practices of journalism could be restrictive. While trying to tell “a nuanced story, like children growing up in drone-affected areas in Yemen and what that does to them long term,” she was certain that there “must be a better way (…) than just sending in a crew and doing interviews.”

Madlena‘s solution was to give cameras to Yemenis to document their experiences. Not only did this prove cost-effective, but it also brought back very different results to what a crew of video journalists could have achieved. She said the experience has “reshaped my thinking about making documentaries going forward.”

Thant Sin, a regular contributor to the citizen media website Global Voices, spoke of the “dark side of this new citizen media: there’s a lot of rumours and misinformation spreading around the net. People start believing whatever they see on the internet.”

Snapp commented that this need for authenticity and verification is one reason that citizen journalists should not be seen as an alternative to professional journalists. “The job of a professional journalist is still very much there (…) It’s about working together now and not seeing each other as threats.”

In a fitting conclusion, McHugh captured the energy of the discussion: “Eyewitness journalism is not the future of journalism – it’s the now.”