A groundbreaking journalism project allows local citizens around the world to bolster their communities, learn new skills and break vital news stories that might otherwise go unnoticed
Quality reporting on international development and human rights issues – like all forms of professional journalism – has been badly affected by declining media revenues. It is not uncommon to hear journalists bemoan this fact and ask where funding for important foreign assignments is likely to come from in the future.
But a group of young journalists in London believes the answer lies in a radically different model to the one typically adopted by traditional news outlets. Instead of sending foreign correspondents to cover important world events, Radar are giving people in local communities the tools to develop their own voice and write their own stories, all for the price of a text message.
The organisation was founded in September 2012 by Libby Powell, an independent journalist and winner of the Guardian’s 2010 International Development Journalism competition. Powell wanted to build a global network of citizen reporters in isolated and excluded communities using the most widely available technology: SMS messaging.
Citizen reporters, many of whom have disabilities and therefore few other opportunities for employment, would send text messages highlighting important issues such as poverty, disability and the effects of conflict. At a central hub in London a team of professional editors would verify them and turn them into articles and blogs to be picked up by the world’s media. After running her idea by a potential backer, Powell secured funding and Radar was born.
The organisation’s remarkable first year began in Sierra Leone where the first network of citizen reporters was established before the 2012 general elections. Once the reporters had been selected from their communities and trained by professional journalists, they immediately began breaking original stories. One particularly noteworthy report came from disability rights activist, Seray Bangura.
“In the lead-up to the election he had heard rumours that tactile balloting was going to be scrapped for people with visual impairments,” says Corin Faife, Radar’s digital platforms manager, who has recently returned from another project in Sierra Leone. “After going to various polling sectors on voting day he verified for himself that this was the case and reported it by SMS. It was then published on our blog and subsequently picked up by the EU Observation Mission, who raised it as a concern in their official report on the election.”
Bangura also managed to get an article published in the Guardian and his work helped convince the Radar team that their model was worth pursuing. Following the success of the Sierra Leone project, they launched citizen networks in Kenya where 120 citizens joined the reporters’ network before the general election in February 2013. Two trainees managed to get bylines in New Internationalist, with articles discussing fears that Kenya might witness a repeat of the violence that had marred the aftermath of the previous election in 2007. Thankfully, the election passed without incident.
Radar has also successfully established networks domestically in the UK as well as in Nairobi and India. At the Google Activate summit in New Delhi, a handful of their citizen reporters were given the opportunity to pitch ideas directly to the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, who praised the quality of their stories. But what has the response been like generally from the mainstream media, whose traditional model Radar seeks to challenge?
“On the whole we have had a very positive response from journalists. I think that’s because it’s clear that the field of journalism is in turmoil,” says Faife. “There’s a huge benefit in increasing diversity of voices that get heard in discussion about development. At the same time, the reason our model is unique is that we are not offering just anyone the chance to report. It’s not a completely open platform. We provide our own quality control and verification through the training that we deliver.”
Looking to the future, Faife is hopeful Radar can build on its achievements during its first year of operation and establish itself as a beacon of development journalism within the next five years.
“I think if we can be clear that it’s about dignity and dialogue, then when others are looking purely into technical solutions, or obsessing over brand new micro-development models, we’ll be able to stay true to our core,” he says. “If in five years’ time we’re the go-to people for genuinely participatory communications, then everyone on the team can be very proud.”
George Wando is a blind reporter from Kisumu in Kenya. Besides using voice recording and typing out reports in braille, he has also memorised hundreds of letter combinations in order to be able to send text messages to Radar (and his friends) from a conventional phone.
“Radar has pushed me to discover my own community: mingle, socialise, go out, understand my people better. Since becoming a reporter at grassroots level, I come across issues within my own community that I had never noticed before, and as I get more people to share their problems with me I realise that there is still so much that the international media isn’t covering – my job is to change that.”
Njenga Hakeenah is a Nairobi-based reporter covering social issues and political stories in audio and print.
“Through Radar I have got new perspectives to approaching stories, especially where the citizens can tell it better. Instead of just parachuting in reporters and taking over, why not let the community itself tell the story? I never thought that citizen reporting could be mainstreamed, but seeing the reporters that have been created through Radar means that the concerns and fears people have about media ethics can be changed. I believe that involving communities in storytelling has an impact which will revolutionise not just the delivery of stories, but create proactivity in those involved.”
Elizabeth Katta is a young citizen reporter with a physical disability from Bo in southern Sierra Leone. She writes about political issues and social affairs.
“Radar training has exposed our community to the media. Before we weren’t expressing our views outside the community, so the world wasn’t aware of what we needed. We weren’t heard at all. I also feel some people’s attitudes toward me have changed: now they are afraid of me, they don’t want me to catch them doing something wrong…”