Thursday, October 14, 2010

Group focus group – Part 2

Our group essentially achieved what we set out to do throughout our media outputs. However, there is a feeling of discouragement within the group as the project is transient.

However, each of our media outputs brought about broad-scale awareness in the community. We created a network together with residents in our wards whereby they could help themselves and others. The project changed perceptions on Joza and residents on journalists. We made real, personal connections with our sources and learned about their lived experiences in various issues.  We brought about our objective of strengthening the community. Each media output illustrated how interconnected residents in each ward are with shared issues.

While our media outputs depicted lived experiences of residents, the language barrier isolated many students who could not speak or understand Xhosa. Many students felt like the connections could have been deeper if there was stable means of communication between journalist and source.

This project, however, created journalists who became more aware of its audience which professional media houses would deem necessary in field work. Media outputs connected with residents. For example, many residents wanted their own copies of the wall newspaper. This public journalism course, however, we concluded, could never work in mainstream media. As soon as a specific area is appointed, journalists are gatekeeping with excludes objectivity in national-scale media outputs. Public journalism projects can only be initiated in smaller communities where these issues would be more relevant to the audience.  However, if a bigger media brand was utilised, exposure and impact would be increased. There was an increasing feeling of despondency from group members who highlighted the lack of authority we, as student journalists, have in the community. The group felt they were not taken seriously as journalists as we are only working on a tertiary level project. There is a need for more time so the project can evolve; where government and sponsors can make a healthy impact on issues in the community. On a mainstream level, public journalists would be able to permanently focus on issues on a grassroots level. There is a constant feeding of information in mainstream journalism while our project remains temporary. The impact would be greater if we were given more time to focus on more issues presented to us in our community meeting.

The design team felt that they were left out of the field work that is so concentrated in this community outreach. However, the group felt that this project made each learn more about journalism. Our practical work in each wards related closely with our theory on public journalism and the role it has to play in a community. The group felt that the media outputs invoked a real sense of social change and it made each member feel like they were doing something positive in the community – however small.

There was a feeling that each member had immersed with residents and felt a part of the community in small way. While the project is short-lived, many felt that next year’s students could explore some of the issues that have come out from this year’s project.

The television members of the group felt that they could explore diverse styles of filming (i.e. giving residents a chance to use a camcorder to film their problems).

However, while the public is open to communicating with us on their issues, our community outreach, not as a volunteer, is a guilty pleasure. We remain sympathetic towards resident issues while we enjoy personal triumphs on our media outputs. This, in the end, is a small-scale project that goes to our degree. However, our community service was highlighted. Public journalism was said to rid media practitioners of arrogance. We were witness to change not only in the community (by setting up platforms of deliberation) but in ourselves (our growth as humanitarians).

The course’s length and structure was criticised though as a more practical makeup would make for better outcomes in the community. More media productions would lead to more time to find solutions. There should be structure in place in Journalism and Media Studies 2, where students explore the greater Grahamstown community and explore public journalism before third year’s in-depth exploration of public journalism in various wards. If residential areas were minimised, there could have been a better quality output and impact.

While our affiliation with Grocott’s Mail helped market our media outputs and public meetings, the partnership online is short-lived. Internet access in rural areas such as Joza is minimal so other outputs need to be discussed so a majority can have access. With authority voices, like the local municipality, there should be a partnership/bond in place so that the Journalism Department can properly configure courses such as this one. The role of journalism in Grahamstown needs to be strengthened so government can find solutions. There needs to be recurring communication with journalists and the municipality so that a professional relationship can be setup. Public journalism is based on a communication process that links citizens, journalists and decision-makers. However, the municipality’s indifference makes journalists seem defeated of their middleman position in society.

The course, all in all, broke down many barriers between students and residents in Grahamstown. Designers, who felt that their contribution in the field was minimal, also attributed their output as making a difference to the community. The course, for many, was humbling and many realised how their skills can contribute to forming a stronger community and how basic needs (like sanitation and housing) is all that one needs to be fulfilled. The course also opened ourselves to our sources as we got to know them in their everyday lives. Instead of interviewing official sources, we conversed and shared with our sources and got to know them beyond our outlined story idea. The course had been described as a bittersweet victory for many. There was a small change made in our exploration of the citizen agenda but the project’s run is temporary. Many felt hopeless at permanent change in the society and that public journalists are fighting an uphill battle in communicating with decision-makers.

The relationships with sources were promising as engagement was friendly and relaxed. Journalists had casual conversations with residents and acted as social ambassadors; agents of social change. Despite this, the course was filled with limitations like the language barrier and the lack of support from NGO’s and decision-makers. Public journalism remains disheartening to many group members as the lack of resources and indifferent ward councilors and municipal leaders invoke a sense of helplessness and anger. Solutions to problems raised in media productions remained nullified by decision-makers. Solutions became too idealised in the beginning of the project and one needs to focus on the establishment of a public forum to voice concerns and issues. Public journalism needs more authority and weight behind it. If a bigger institution, like the Daily Dispatch, would initiate a public journalism project, more would be done because of the brand and its resources for change.

Many group members felt disillusioned about journalism itself. Seeing rural life and poor conditions everyday would be hard on many group members. The reality of this project has struck group members as being too depressing to work under. Also, there is an increasing despondency about government fulfilling service delivery in rural areas.

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