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Mobile Coverage: How Phones and WhatsApp Empower Ordinary Reporters

Steve Dempsey, Product Manager at Independent News & Media, discusses how technology is helping the rise of citizen journalism.

by Steve Dempsey in Research


Nigerian special forces prepare to fight Boko Haram in Diffa. Away from the conflict, ordinary Nigerians face a range of issues, including jobs and corruption

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and its recent elections were big news. But behind the standard reportage a small band of citizen journalists were reporting from the frontline using only SMS and WhatsApp.

These reporters were trained by communications rights organisation Radar, which gives a voice to people who don’t normally get the opportunity to share their stories.

Radar has previously worked with media outlets like the BBC World Service, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. It created a hub for journalistic stories during the Ebola crisis, which saw reporters tell the story of the crisis from locations that traditional journalists can’t reach: urban slums, former mining towns and remote regions.

“Citizen journalists with their basic mobile phone handsets can mix it with the best journalists from the big institutions,” claims Paul Myles, Radar’s Editorial Lead.

“Radar’s team on the ground for the Nigerian elections reported on hyper-local issues, worked with local media and election monitors to ensure that elections were conducted in free and fair manner in their community. They were reporting on issues such as voter intimidation, technological failures at polling units, and making sure that electoral procedures were carried out correctly.”

As a result, Radar was able to provide media organisations with unparalleled coverage, the ability to validate breaking news from remote areas, and eyewitness reports. The 36 reporters, who were trained last November, submitted stories to an encrypted SMS hub. These stories were then verified – sometimes using another reporter from the same community – and often developed; Radar’s editorial team perhaps suggesting a particular interview, photo, or new perspective to strengthen their story.

Aside from western media outlets, Radar also worked with media on the ground in Nigeria. “We’ve tried to work a lot more with national media,” Myles says. “Some stories have more impact if they are shared with the affected communities. It’s also really important for our reporters to see their work in publications that they actually read.”

The mobile phone is vital to empowering these reporters. “We saw an opportunity with the rise of the mobile phone to be able to connect with even the most remote communities in Africa,” says Myles.

“Even those who don’t have access to regular electricity at home will have access to a basic mobile phone handset. So we built our SMS hub – a reporter can send in a report at the price of a local text message. We can read it from our encrypted hub from anywhere in the world, and send a response also at the cost of a local message.”

The addition of messaging service WhatsApp was an accidental extension of this process, thanks to the rise in smartphones. “Using WhatsApp adds a new dimension, because photos and short videos can be sent from the scene of an event,” Myles says. Most interesting, though, has been experimenting with the audio function on WhatsApp – reporters can send in clear and engaging audio reports, without the audio problems you get from a bad connection. There have been times when the BBC World Service have called me at 9am asking for an update to a story. By 10am, our reporter has sent through an audio report on WhatsApp. I cut it and pass it on, and by 11am it’s being broadcasted back to Africa, with our reporter able to tune in with his family.”

“Often the most powerful, moving and authentic stories are those told straight from the source, “

Myles stresses that the reporters were keen to demonstrate that the elections were peaceful, for the most part. “For a lot of our reporters in the South of Nigeria, the threat of Boko Haram in the North East felt far away, like a different country,” he says. “This was interesting to hear. For international media, Boko Haram was the number one issue. But for much of the rest of the country, less newsworthy issues such as electricity, water, corruption and unemployment were the talk of the town.”

So are there implications for this type of reporting for traditional western media outlets? Well, it’s unlikely that citizen journalists will replace experienced journalists, but Radar has proved that you can get a level of access and local knowledge that isn’t always possible with a roving reporter.

“Often the most powerful, moving and authentic stories are those told straight from the source, ” Myles says. “These are the stories most likely to challenge your worldview, or debunk myths or stereotypes.”

And with an Irish election looming how would Radar approach covering the scramble for the 32nd Dáil? “We try and go as far to the margins as possible,” Myles says, “to those who don’t tend to be included in public dialogue, who do not usually get the chance to tell their story or to influence policy.

“This means the young homeless, care leavers, asylum seekers, perhaps the elderly in remote or working class neighbourhoods who are not online.

“I’m sure would give us a more 360 degree view of life in Ireland, and a deeper understanding of how things work. And I’m sure we’d unearth some spectacular untold stories and some fascinating characters along the way.”

Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

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