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But is it journalism?

Guy Berger's picture

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Mary Waters school learner, Pamela Matinisi sending her sms.

What constitutes the journalism in Citizen Journalism? Once again, this perennial question has cropped up – although this time it made me think a little more clearly than previously. The occasion was the 2nd Global Forum for Media Development. The question was in response to my presentation of the Knight-funded project – “Iindaba Ziyafika” (meaning: “The News is Coming”).

My presentation was titled “Haiku journalism in Africa”, and was a version of that which I gave at the MobileActive conference in Johannesburg in October.

The story is about the 45 school learners generating a variety of journalisms for Grocott’s Mail under the first phase of the Iindaba project.

Examples (that I’ve edited) were:

• The community of Fingo Village suffered through an unbearable and uncontrollable sewage leak last week, resulting from a blockage by litter and pollution.

• Friday afternoon, pupils were caught doing sexual activities in public in Ethembeni Ext7. They were kissing each others’ private parts and also taking their clothes off. They were beaten by the community but the cops were not called in.

• A 15-yr-old boy broke into a house on Thursday afternoon, in Tantyi location. He sneaked though the bedroom window, and stole a CD case and food. He was only found out because he left a toy gun on the table. The home owner got a lead from other boys in the area. When he found the boy in the street playing, he beat him so badly that neighbours had to stop him. As for his CD’s, they were at the boy's home.

And the haiku journalism?

• On my way home. Knives. "Give me your phone." Took, ran away.
• “Give me a rand”. Lunch in my bag; they ate it.
• My classmate busy as a bee: Braids on Thursday; plaited on Friday. How's that possible?
• Filthy is the water. Dirty polluted ground. At a nearby river.

A question from the floor asked whether this could be counted as journalism, because it was communications sans context. It triggered my thinking expressed in more-or-less the following words:

“Journalism is made up of many elements – covering reportage such as cellphone images of the London bombings, through to deeper and ethically balanced information that is multi-sourced and analytical”.

Following Dan Gillmor’s lead, I argued that many “acts of journalism”, as well as content that comes close to aspects of journalism, are produced – by citizens as well as NGOs.

A fellow panellist, Sameer Padania from Witness responded by arguing that “context” today is established collaboratively, including by citizen input.

Another person asked about accuracy. My response was that this had to be monitored – “just as the case with media professionals” – so as to try and detect fabrication, unethical and wrong information.

In short, let’s not be too purist about what counts as journalism. A lot can contribute to that particular form of communication, and in that way enrich public comms of relevance to democracy and development.

But it’s a debate. Can journalistic content really be expressed in the style of haiku poetry? Or is this a step too far in “reinventing” journalism?

By the way, the challenge of accuracy also underlines the need for training of citizen journalists in advance.” I gave out some copies of our mini-handbook we’ll use in training our next generation of scholar Citizen Journalists. Here's the cover:

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Download the booklet

• I’m twittering the GFMD conference, using hashtag #gfmd08

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