The revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa have captured the attention of the world, and have inspired citizens everywhere to speak out against injustice. Yet many of these movements have felt the wrath of the regimes they are speaking out against – through violence, arrests, and massive censorship.
In such environments, how can the media capture the stories unfolding on the ground?
More and more recently, we are seeing mainstream media look to citizen media and citizen journalists to accurately capture the story.
Changemakers spoke to Brian Conley, the director and co-founder of Small World News, to find out more about the growing intersection between mainstream and citizen media, and to get his thoughts about what the future holds for citizen journalism. Small World News is a documentary and new media company dedicated to providing tools to journalists and citizens around the world to tell their own stories. It is also an entrant in the Google-supported competition on Citizen Media.
In an environment like Libya, how to you select your stories?
In Libya, as in most areas we work, stories are primarily driven by the local correspondents. The input of local citizens is essential for us to ensure we can provide a nuanced perspective that doesn’t lose the local context.
At the same time, we strive to provide strong guidance on journalistic principles and best practices from our home office. This system has been essential in enabling us to create compelling accurate stories in environments that have previously had little tradition of independent journalism.
Small World News is focused on developing the capacity of citizens to engage with the international community in crisis areas and conflict zones—why are citizens your focus?
Citizens are our focus because every individual is a citizen. In fact, in this globalized world, it’s important to realize that we are becoming citizens of the world, and it is more important than ever to step outside our narrow, national identities.
Citizens must be the first focus of journalists. Informing the citizens is the top priority—all citizens—in equal measure. In order to meet this goal, all citizens must have the chance to attain the capacity to compete equally with the skills and responsibilities of journalists.
You’ve been producing multimedia journalism, in crisis and conflict areas, for ten years. How have you seen the field of journalism change in the areas that you work?
We’ve been working in crisis and conflict areas since 2005. Previously, many of our team members were involved with Indymedia, covering protest movements in the United States and elsewhere, as well as producing documentaries and reporting on the major global justice protests, September 11th, and other issues.
In the last 10 years, the expansion of blogging software, and eventually YouTube and other video sharing sites, combined with the dramatic increase in connectivity, has completely changed the face of media.
When Indymedia was founded in 1999 it was still incredibly difficult to distribute multimedia reporting online. Although reports could be filed, getting them seen was a completely different animal.
Today, world-changing foreign reporting is limited primarily by the access of those closest to unfolding events, and to those with the tools and training necessary to create high-quality, impactful stories. We really are reaching a time where we are limited more by our ability to dream than by the existence of the tools to realize our dreams.
What do you attribute these changes to?
The spread of digital technology, and rapid increase in access to mobile phones and connectivity is changing the face of media faster than anyone can predict. Although these changes often get cited in discussions about the collapse of the traditional press’s primary financial models, the writing was on the wall for the news industry long before the rise of social media and broadband mobile data.
What we are seeing today is that the dramatic changes in access to information and media production, and what are essentially the tools of storytellers, are playing a role in fragmenting many areas of our social structures. Events across the Middle East and North Africa have shown how social media and affordable tools for creating and disseminating information are having an impact beyond news agencies and marketing.
As we have seen this year, particularly through the Arab Spring, mainstream media can face serious challenges when trying to cover unfolding events. How does your work interact with mainstream media in challenging contexts?
This is a huge challenge. The mainstream, or “traditional,” media is reliant on time-tested structures and workflows–the same systems that are being tested and strained all over the world.
Times of crisis push this further, however, in the specific circumstances of the Arab Spring or Arab uprising. We’ve seen the traditional media chasing the story and battling each other for exclusives, and racing to be the first to source and verify citizen media from the frontlines.
What we’ve found is that today, user-generated content is easier to find, however what remains the same (from the Haitian earthquake, to protests in Tahrir Square, the rebellion in Libya, or the tsunami in Japan) is that user-generated content largely lacks context and is often of low technical quality. Small World News focuses on providing training to locals in journalism, production, and storytelling to enable citizens to leverage available media tech to create compelling human stories from the frontlines.
How do you perceive the relationship between citizen and mainstream media?
I have been surprised recently, but I find myself increasingly optimistic about the evolving relationship between citizen and traditional media. Larger news agencies and small ones alike are beginning to recognize the importance and impact that citizens will play in telling the compelling stories of the future.
At the same time, citizens are still severely limited by their access to resources and ability to reach a broad audience. Although Facebook may have 500 million users, CNN, Al Jazeera, and the New York Times have a more predictable and organized audience, by virtue of their methods of content distribution.
It continues to be difficult for local citizens in conflict and crisis areas to take part in the various digital, online, and social media revolutions. Citizens all over the world need stronger institutions to train, advise, and capacitate them to create media and judge the media being created by traditional outlets in fairness, depth, and breadth.
I believe it will take a bold commitment to a new, innovative, and open journalism of the future by governments, citizens, and foundations to craft a fourth estate—for not only the 21st century, but to ensure a durable, free press on into the 22nd.