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.
The tiny device journalists increasingly use to report is more than a technological improvement — it is enabling a more personal and democratic sort of journalism.
Mobile phones have become ubiquitous in many parts of the world. More than eight in 10 adults between the age of 18 and 49 in the U.S. owned a smartphone in 2015. In developing countries, although smartphones are still too expensive for many, cellphones are commonly used even if there is only one for an entire family.
Equipped with mobiles, journalists are more discreet, accessing places that were once complicated to reach. In events or places where journalists are clear targets, mobile phones can also mean safety.
“Reporters are targets. Not just in riots – look at the way the press is being hounded on Donald Trump’s campaign. It makes sense for reporters to be discrete,” writes BBC journalist Nick Garnett.
He has covered violent riots in Manchester, confrontations between police and migrants in Hungary and Austria and reported on the Syrian border with a mobile phone, which made him relatively safer because he wasn’t “standing out from the crowd.” He thinks the safety he enjoyed thanks to his mobile is similar to what print journalists have always known.
John D. McHugh, who has worked in places like Afghanistan and Bahrain, realized how his traditional photojournalist’s gear could be dangerous.
“They were arresting and detaining journalists at the airport, so I went in with no kit, because one of the easiest way to identify a journalist is a kit of cameras,” he explains.
If he was cautious as a journalist, he remains so with his eyewitness company, Verifeye Media, he says. Because of what he experienced and witnessed as a photojournalist, he now puts extra care in making sure Verifeye Media’s app is secure and encrypted. Contributors are anonymized to clients. Verifeye has also developed an auto-upload feature for cases when contributors are filming under lots of constraints like in riots. If their mobiles are confiscated by police or damaged by protesters, the content has already been uploaded and sent to Verifeye.
Mojos believe their work is closer to reality. Because mobiles are less noticeable, Garnett “was able to witness events without influencing them” during riots and protests.
Journalists also talk about the difference they’ve seen when doing interviews with their small devices. Wytse Vellinga, a mobile journalist for Dutch media organization Omrop Fryslân, feels it’s useful for more personal stories.
“Mojo always gets me closer to the people I talk to,” he says. He added that interviewees end up forgetting a banal mobile phone is filming them.
Leonor Suárez, a news editor for Spain’s TPA, had a mobile in her pocket when she visited silver mines in Bolivia while on vacation. She was shocked to see the miners’ working conditions. Though she’d not intended to report from Bolivia, she was compelled to tell their stories. Miners were surprised to see her filming with her iPhone, but they eventually trusted her.
“For me, the most important thing as a journalist is that you’re able to tell a story whenever, wherever, in the most difficult conditions just with your phone,” she says.
While many stories about mobile journalism tend to focus on its impact in developed countries, it has also improved conditions for journalists in the rest of the world. BBC Media Action, in particular, has been providing mobile journalism training throughout the developing world.
When Clare Lyons, senior trainer at BBC Media Action, arrived in Myanmar in March 2014, very few people in the country had access to a mobile phone. But private investment in telecommunication infrastructure meant network connectivity was developing. Moreover, the cost of mobile phones and SIM cards was decreasing.
“[A mobile phone] was not only a tool for communication, it was also a way for people to access information and a journalist could use a mobile to record and send that information,” says Lyons.
BBC Media Action’s trainers had worked mainly with Myanmar’s state broadcaster but wanted to support independent media more. As general elections were coming to a close in 2015 and Myanmar’s journalists had limited experience reporting on free elections, BBC Media Action decided to combine mobile journalism and election coverage in their trainings. Workshops were challenging to prepare because most journalists in Myanmar only had cheap Android phones.
Many training courses are designed around iPhones mainly because of their quality, the number of apps available on iOS and their popularity among journalists in developed countries. Android has many different operating systems, which complicates training and collaboration. But iPhones remain very expensive for some journalists and newsrooms.
At The Hindustan Times, Yusuf Omar, mobile editor, deals with many different phones in the newsroom. He started a system to keep The Hindustan Times’ mobile content consistent. It consists of a hierarchy where lower-quality phones only shoot basic footage, which they send to better phones for editing.
Back in Myanmar, with advice from mojo pioneers and a gadget geek from a local broadcast partner, Lyons and her more tech-savvy team members put together the mobile journalism training. But there were several other issues, including access to apps, weather conditions and location and construction pace of the telecommunications companies’ masts for connectivity.
Lack of connection is a problem in many countries. The upcoming launch of YouTube Go will allow users to download videos through WiFi to bypass the lack of 3G networks. Another implication for journalists: users can share videos without a connection.
Omar takes a recent example where he had mojos reporting in Kashmir during the flare-ups after Eid al-Fitr.
“The government had dropped the internet and mobile signal for a few days and we couldn’t get the videos out to the world. Using YouTube Go, we would be able to send videos in a chain of users till it eventually reaches a part of India where authorities haven’t dropped the internet — then we can get it out to the world,” he explains.
Connectivity has gotten better in Myanmar. Media reforms and growing mobile penetration are also changing the way journalism is done, even though the country still ranks 143rd out of 179 for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders.
BBC Media Action isn’t limiting its mobile journalism training to Myanmar. Elizabeth Mearns, senior producer at BBC Media Action, also held trainings in Bangladesh that led to an innovative project: a 360 photograph on Google’s Story Sphere for an earthquake campaign. The photograph showed and explained what would happen to different places and actors in the event of an earthquake in Dhaka.
What started in 1973 as a 1.1 kg prototype that only let people talk for 30 minutes has become a multifaceted tool essential for many. Journalists have seized the opportunity to exploit the technological innovations to their advantage. Safety, mobility and ease of availability are advantages that have been noted by many mojos, enabling them to produce better, more reactive and personal, journalism.
Main image and third courtesy of Yusuf Omar. Second image of John D. McHugh courtesy of Verifeye Media.