Friday, October 8, 2010

Lauren van Der Vyver and Shameez Joubert: JDD CMP reflection

In line with Haas’s public philosophy for public journalism, our group used a diversity of citizen voices in our media outputs. We provided citizens with a forum to air personal issues that relate to broad-based community issues. By the use of public meetings and focus groups, we created a sphere in which members of the community could evaluate and contribute to story ideas. Our journalistic processes engaged all members of the communities and the citizens were active contributors to the production of our stories. By the use of a tabloid style, we created a public sphere in which all can relate and contribute and in which individual experience relates to shared issues in residents living in both Ward 5 and 6. By using public journalism methods in the course, we have stepped outside mass media outputs and instead concentrated on the individual and his or her experience.

As media practitioners participating in the Journalism, Development and Democracy and Critical Media Production courses, we have been opened up to the possibilities of using a different style of journalism than we have been used to, and through this we have seen how much more rewarding our journalism could be, in terms of really engaging with people. By immersing oneself in the community of Joza, there is a prevalence of the individual and his or her experience. This individual experience, however, is one that is shared and can be understood on a local, national and global level. It is refreshing to work outside the bounds of mass media where the elite and important sources are prioritised. The man on the street is the source too often overlooked. The course provided us with a breath of fresh air – an opportunity to get out of the classroom and learn about our future vocations by doing, and connecting to people. In this unequal society, there has to be a voice representative of the average citizens to challenge those in power about service delivery and development, where necessary. This role acts to develop a community or individual’s needs and encourages the community to help themselves.

Initially, our objective was to engage with members of our respective communities to find out about their stories and underlying issues in the hopes that we could invoke some sort of positive social change in favour of the community via the media that we produce. We were acutely aware of the limitations of our influence for drastic change given the short time space that the course covers and our sway (or lack thereof) with figures of authority within the respective municipalities. Any positive impact that we make would be considered an achievement, whether that be at a structural level, or a more subtle, informal opening in lines of communication.

We adopted a tabloid style approach to all media production, to make it more accessible and interesting for our target audience to read, watch and listen to. The story choices covered were decidedly varied, with crime, housing, small business, alcoholism, the elderly and sport as our primary focuses – but they were also interconnected in the sense that they pertained directly to the communities involved and highlighted the issues they felt, as well as provided a platform for external interested parties to get involved in helping to address the problems found in the community. Essentially we hoped to bridge the gap between inaction on the part of the municipality via civil society or mobilisation of the community itself.

We produced our media outputs, extending from Ward 5 to Ward 6, within our group. We did not utilise any citizen journalists in the area but we did communicate with members in the Ward as to authority figures or councillors we needed to establish our public meeting and subsequent media productions. We did not recruit the services of native reporters or citizen journalists as we have known many to be unreliable in meeting deadlines. Instead, we used residents to facilitate story ideas. We did, however, use Kwanele Butana, a community member and Grocott’s Mail journalist, to facilitate and moderate our public meeting. In this, we recognised how the use of IsiXhosa was prevalent in speaking to those who have stories to tell. The barrier of language has broken as community members could readily speak about issues without having to speak English. The role of journalist is often ambiguous with the rise of citizen journalism. Blogs and Twitter create new roles for journalists and allows anyone to publish a story. However, journalistic ethics and professionalism is often disregarded by citizen journalists. Meeting deadlines and becoming a voice for all is often left to radical advocacy and opinion. Citizen journalists need to be skilled in journalistic practices such as reporting, editing and proof-reading to readily work in the field.

We were able to include the community in the making of our journalism outputs. The use of simple English and relevant information (telephone numbers and Ward councillor details) in outputs helped incorporate our target audience in Joza. With the use of a tabloid approach, we challenged the municipality in the delivery of needs and services through personal accounts of residents in Ward 5 and 6. Our use of simple English was pertinent in communicating to residents who are primarily Xhosa speaking. In the wall tabloid, for example, use of simple language as seen in the Daily Sun, was significant in communicating with our target audience. All media outputs were considerate to the stories of each subject represented in the story. This aligns closely with the Daily Sun as we have produced media as a platform to speak out about issues. In this basic style, readers in Joza can readily understand and relate to the experiences of the sources in the productions.

Each story promoted fresh, original narratives centred on shared issues in Ward 5 and 6. Most media outputs focused on the individual and his or her problems and experiences in living in Ward 5 and 6. The prevalence of individual stories makes the media more accessible to the target audience. A sense of compassion is created when an individual is prioritised. A singular problem, however unique, can relate to a bigger issue in the community. Our group name, Masethetheni or Let’s talk illustrates how our media productions have included stories that promote public deliberation. In a feature on the Indoor Sports Centre’s netball coach, there is colourful detail on the heroic efforts some people tend to develop a community and its youth. The source’s background and personality comes through and this is used so readers may understand that there is development and hope in projects in the community.

One-to-one interviews were the chief medium for research. Face-to-face dialogue with sources was prevalent in understanding of personal experiences in living in Ward 5 or 6. The group’s hands-on approach was important in understanding the source’s complaints and experiences first-hand. Story research related closely with our tabloid style approach to media outputs. One-to-one interviews were not overbearing and sources could easily express their emotions with journalists who took time to come to their homes or work places. Our initial media outputs were identified by our first public community meeting where collective issues were brought up. From that point, we used these issues (health, RDP housing, crime, youth and recreation) to develop personal accounts of residents surrounding these broad problems. In this, there is a local understanding of an individual account. For example, if an individual expressed his or her experience of crime in the area, a reader would comprehend his or her apprehension about criminals in the area. Most stories depict government’s inconsistency at service delivery which reaches relevant theoretical frames of understanding.

Our sources were chiefly depicted through lived experiences of Ward 5 and 6’s residents. Their experiences were of high priority to the development of the story and these individuals remained principal sources. This extends closely to the use of tabloid journalism whereby a grassroots approach was used to express broad-based issues. However, we did see that both male and female residents were included in media productions. Sources were willing to use journalism as a stepping stone to development in their area of concern. The relationships with sources were friendly and accommodating as many saw journalists as helpers, identifying and understanding their lived experiences and anger with government. Many sources acted as participants in the production. The mediator used in our group’s public meeting was used as a source in crime issues in the area. By compliant relationships with sources, we have learnt to understand their concerns more and readily produce content that depicts hardship.

We covered individual experiences that facilitated public understanding. Broad issues such as crime and the poorly built RDP houses were portrayed through a range of sources who have particular experiences. Among community members there is a mutual understanding of the issues brought about in the productions. While there could be an individual account of someone falling ill due to the Ward’s excessive pollution, the problem is widespread and rife for all members of the community. As journalists, we do provide solutions to many of the issues that are brought up but those in authority are often circumspect about our project and often disregard our attempts to depict their side of the story. Media outputs did, however, promote community development. For example, the Indoor Sports Centre featured promoted sport instead of petty crime amongst youngsters in the area. Progress and development in the community, however, is absent in government negligence and throughout our production, accounts of this is taken into account. As a group, we did however include contact information so that the community can help themselves to their problems by contacting influential community members.

Where possible, we aimed to produce stories in Xhosa – the dominant language within the community, which was done in the two TV stories and one of the three soundslides. These were all done in a style that was emotive and empathetic, really connecting to the issues within the community. We hoped to simultaneously connect to people within the community itself, and external interested parties that would be able to help, which was decidedly successful (For example, a soundslide produced about an old age home in extension six was shown to members of the Rotary board, who were extremely interested in actively helping the organisation erect a fence around the property). The wall newspaper was vibrant, with liberal use of colour, engaging visuals, and fact boxes with relevant contact information and interesting titbits. It was also interactive, with a space provided for citizens to list potential home industries, the details of which we will collect and distribute as a hyper local business directory for wards five and six.

We organised our first community meeting on the 25th of August, which was held at the Extension nine community hall. This provided an accessible space for deliberation where residents of the community championed the meeting without much intervention from our part. We decided that we would structure a platform for this type of open communication to occur and set up the relevant infrastructure needed for the meeting in terms of a personal announcement system and venue. We asked Grocott’s journalist, Kwanele Butana, to facilitate the discussion, and invited the ward councillors, although we specifically stated that no political agendas were to be voiced. It ended up being a gathering of around 120 people – an impressive turnout to say the least, and the only “intervention” in the meeting was for Kwanele to steer the agenda in a structured manner according to the issues that naturally emerged from the attendees.

It was a respectful and ordered gathering, where the agenda was set by the people attending, and really encapsulated the essence of what we were trying to achieve, which was hearing the issues of the people that belong to wards 5 and 6 from their own perspective. There was evidence that people were making an effort to solve the issues that cropped up at the meeting, in terms of learning that there were existing hyper local organisations (for example, the community policing forum) that were specifically concerned with the issue of crime in the area. There was also evidence of back and forth dialogue between citizens with suggestions of how to better the current living conditions in wards five and six.

All the media produced by us after the meeting were directly related to the themes that emerged from the concerns expressed by the citizens of wards five and six. In doing this, we followed up on stories such as the community policing forum in our wall newspaper which was placed at diverse locations around both wards so that these organisations could attain increased visibility and support from the citizens within the community. In addition, we established ties with organisations external to the community that were keen to be involved and engaged in this community so as to provide the citizens with infrastructure and resources so that they would be able to affect positive change within themselves. Sustainability was key, and the goal was not to simply give the community aid on a once off basis, but rather to build bridges with interested external organisations whose primary concern would be equipping the community with the resources or tools required for them to be able to help themselves, as well as provide support and visibility for existing organisations within the community via the media we produced.

All media platforms were effective on engaging audiences and depicting broad-based community issues. Documentaries and audio slide shows were effective in using images to clearly illustrate issues within a community – whether it is the area’s pollution or someone’s broken down house. Photography and television is effective in candidly expressing individual experiences in the area. Also, one on one interviews are effective in engaging the community. Soundslides and doccies are effective in introducing one’s first-hand account of adversity. The wall tabloid is also effective in introducing personal accounts of problems in the area. The wall tabloids, placed in areas were people congregate (spaza shops, MTN chat boxes and post offices) engages audiences to publicly deliberate on what is going on in the lives of their neighbours and community members. However, the wall tabloid does restrict understanding as we used English as our medium to communicate. This can restrict engagement from the community. However, our use of simple language could be effective in engaging a broader readership.

As a group we did not split ourselves into covering different wards. We wanted to produce content based in both Wards together. In the production process, journalists were paired with someone to develop a story (i.e. a writer would be paired with a designer; a photographer would be paired with a radio journalist). In our paired groups, there was a definite democratic system whereby each member facilitates to the production of the story. Group editorial processes were conducted together. We had assigned a group leader who would facilitate the meeting and encourage each group to pitch and explain his or her story idea. This process was necessary in case two or more stories conflicted in topic or sources. Each media output was developed by the pair, edited by the pair and sent through to the group to look over, edit, proof-read and design and layout the end product (as was the process of the wall tabloid). Each member of the group was encouraged to participate and contribute equally.

Individual stories were set out in group meetings and certain tasks were assigned to a journalist. While the pairs worked individually from the group, the other members of the group communicated their story ideas with each other. This was a positive procedure in which group members would help each other with the development of media outputs. Some group members had previous relations with members of the community and in this helped pairs develop their stories and source list. It was also positive working together in both Wards. There is a clear contrast between wards 5 and 6 but the issues were often shared.

Although we had Rhodes University, RMR and Grocotts’ presence at the meeting in terms of logos and support, this project was independent of all these organisations and championed solely by Masithetheni. We were given an initial budget to work with, but this was also free from any editorial parameters. We did not align ourselves with the municipality because we made a decision not to involve the political sphere – we wanted to hear the voices of people, and not their supposed representatives. In addition, we uncovered that the municipality had been largely ineffectual, and so we wanted to provide a space where citizens could be critical of the structures that were not working without fear of retribution of any kind. By not aligning ourselves directly with Grocott's Mail, or more accurately utilising the newspaper as potential advertising for the meeting, I feel like we missed an opportunity to place the meeting into the public sphere, although to be fair, we did an extensive amount of advertising within the most important areas that we aimed to reach, which were wards five and six, by putting up posters within the community, handing out flyers and talking to people on a one on one, highly personal level. We believe that we gained much more than we lost by not aligning ourselves with the municipality, as we created a truly civic platform where people freely criticised the ineffectual governance in wards five and six, opening up the channels of accountability between the ward councillors and the citizens that were not apparent.

1 comment:

  1. Confusion between the concept of ‘mass media’ and ‘mainstream’ media. Repetitive references to tabloid style. your criticism of citizen journalists : is this general or as a result of experience with CJs in Grahamstown?
    No specific discussion of work done by your pair. All too general.