Profiles in mobile journalism: Where citizens fit

by Clothilde Goujard
Oct 30, 2018 in Mobile Journalism

Across the world, mobile journalists are telling riveting stories with little more than a smartphone in hand. This five-part series will examine how we define mobile journalism, how traditional newsrooms are adapting, citizen contributions, how mobile is improving journalism and disruption in mobile journalism.

What do you do when you are doing a story on the treatment of refugees but you can’t go there?

Nauru, one of Australia’s detention centers for refugees who reach the country by boat, is on an island in the Pacific — only reachable by a four-and-a-half hour flight from the Australian mainland. Many journalists can’t access it.

Britain’s Channel 4 was missing an important part of their story. They had experts on the issue, but no one on the ground at the detention center. They asked John D. McHugh, photojournalist and founder of Verifeye Media, which gathers eyewitness footage, if he had contributors on the island. McHugh didn’t — but within 24 hours, he was able to identify, locate, contact and sign up three refugees at the detention center in Nauru.

In 10 days, about nine people recorded video testimonies about their daily lives and the problems they were facing. McHugh and his team were able to verify the content.

“That’s the first time Verifeye media has been really used properly,” he says.

Channel 4 didn’t just publish these videos separately; they used them in their piece to create more compelling and accurate journalism.

McHugh started Verifeye after realizing the potential for journalism when incorporating new technologies and eyewitness contributions. His idea was not to replace journalists, but to be able to offer different perspectives from hard-to-access places such as Syria or Afghanistan.

Citizens could fit into mobile journalism, to an extent, by contributing to newsgathering when it’s impossible for a journalist to do so. Verifeye, like its name says, only deals with trustworthy contributors, according to McHugh. Mobile technology has made jt possible to do so with an application that gathers all metadata. Verifeye then does some extra verification.

With the cost of mobile decreasing, the barrier to produce content — especially photos and videos — is lower, and some journalists are worried about what it means for their industry. But many mobile journalists, or mojos, aren’t too preoccupied.

“I don’t think everyone being able to use the technology leads to everyone being a journalist because journalism is not standing in front of camera, it’s also about research and finding a story,” says Björn Staschen, mojo trainer and head of NextNewsLab at German broadcaster NDR.

Ivo Burum, an Australian journalist and mojo trainer, had seen the opportunity to include citizens’ perspectives with technology even before mobiles were introduced.

As an executive producer for an Australian current affairs show, he started a series of experiments. After a terrible bush fire badly damaged Canberra, news crews left to cover the next big thing. But Burum wanted to see a bigger picture of the story so he went on the radio there and made a call. The next day, he chose four families and taught them to use cameras. For 16 weeks, the families filmed their daily lives after the fire - problems with insurance companies and destruction of the homes that housed their elderly parents. All that content was used to make a documentary.

Now, as a mojo trainer, Burum trains both journalists and indigenous communities.

“Mojo gives remote communities the possibility to tell their stories from a very different perspective,” he explains. “It’s more than just technical for me; more than a toolkit for professional journalists. We need to start seeing the potential of mojo.”

Burum practices, trains and also researches the topic of mobile journalism. He’s written a few books and has a Ph.D. For him, mobile journalism is much bigger than a technical improvement in journalism; it’s a driver for improved democracy.

“Mobile journalism is a set of tools, a language to enable people to tell their own stories and create a more diverse public sphere,” he says.

It’s also a way of telling stories differently. Yusuf Omar, mobile editor at The Hindustan Times, used it to tell a traditional education story with new perspectives. His team asked six students to Snapchat six weeks trying to get into university. They would send it to the newsroom and Omar’s team published their stories.

“You empower even more people and you get users to come into your ecosystem,” says Omar.

At the detention center in Nauru, a man whose face is blurred opens up about his situation: “It’s like a torture chamber. We’ve been here three years and we’ve become despondent. Most are thinking about suicide, including me.”

Channel 4’s piece about Australia’s immigration system gave a voice to those the Australian government doesn’t allow to speak publicly. Many more media organizations are actively seeing mobile journalism as a way to include their audiences more actively in their production. At a time when newsrooms still struggle with diversity, this could also be a way for media organizations to be more representative and inclusive.

Main image courtesy of Yusuf Omar. Secondary image of John D. McHugh courtesy of McHugh.