In a year bursting with news stories, hurricanes Irma and Maria, category storms that ripped through the Caribbean one after the other, still managed to dominate headlines.
While Puerto Rico has been in the spotlight in the aftermath, several of the smaller islands —Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos and the Virgin Islands— were also levelled by the sister storms.
The devastation experienced by the islands has been met with equal determination to rebuild. Unaffected nations like Trinidad and Jamaica have mobilized in support, and the storm-ravaged islands themselves have rallied to rebuild not only their infrastructure, but their societies. And they’ve been vocal about showing it.
Rhea Yaw Ching, the president and executive director of the Covela Foundation, noticed the flurry of activity on social media documenting both the damage and recovery efforts following the storms.
“There was social media and mainstream media, and there was a whole bunch of content being created,” said Yaw Ching, herself a Trinidadian.
She saw an opportunity to harness the power of citizen journalism and community storytelling to tell stories from recovery efforts, not just for the benefit of overseas media, but for the Caribbean community itself.
The Covela Foundation had an existing partnership with the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States. “So what I did as part of that remit was to go to them and say ‘hey, one of the opportunities we have here is to actually expand this ecosystem of indigenous Caribbean content and do it in the right way,” said Yaw Ching.
This was the beginning of Caribbean Voice.
Image of the Caribbean
Increasingly, developing countries have a greater say in how they’re represented abroad. The democratization of technology and the ability to carry out reporting with little more than a smartphone has empowered citizen journalists as well as local media houses. This is especially useful in times of crisis, when a single narrative can dominate headlines and have debilitating effects both psychologically and economically.
“Part of the problem that we see in developing countries and the Caribbean in particular is that what is dramatized and sensationalized in mainstream media becomes the impression of the Caribbean,” said Yaw Ching. “You fall into this trap sometimes, as many countries in Africa do right now, where the public visualization of these countries is poverty, destitution, just everything is disastrous.
“It puts us at a disadvantage, particularly as we try to grow our own economies and get our stories heard.”
The project, still in its curating stage, relies on organic participation from the ground. Participants have been invited to submit stories, photos and video to a central Facebook page, with attribution and source information.
Yaw Ching is hyperaware that a sense of community doesn’t immunize the initiative from inaccuracy, one of her major concerns when establishing Caribbean Voice.
“Standards and quality assurance is paramount,” Yaw Ching explained. Because if in mainstream media in both Europe and the United States fake news is now a thing, then it’s got to be a thing for us.
“What you don’t want to do is to not encourage something because of the risk of fake news, but you do want to adhere to some kind of standards and quality,” she continued. “So what we are doing is filtering after posting rather than filtering before. It’s not a newspaper or a media house, but we do have fact-checking from the media practitioners in the community.”
The future for Caribbean Voice
Ching was excited about the initial response to the project, effusing that they’re not only receiving reportage from the islands, but an array of creative work.
The response has been such that partners have floated the idea that Caribbean Voice could extend beyond hurricane recovery efforts, though Yaw Ching hasn’t made any definite plans. “So far it’s been going where it needs to go, a vast improvement on where we were before.”
Caribbean Voice, like crowdsourcing storytelling platforms before it, is giving citizens and journalists in developing countries a much larger outlet to tell their own stories, as well as connect with each other.
“This demonstrates our resilience, that we have the capability, capacity and inclination to rebuild our own territories,” said Yaw Ching, “And [say] thank you very much for your help, and this is what we have to show for it. We’re rebuilding.”
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Mark Yokoyama.