Citizen Journalism: From ‘U’ to ‘O’ model

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Citizen Journalism: From ‘U’ to ‘O’ model

Olivier Nyirubugara
August 2008

Olivier Nyirubugara, Editor

Olivier Nyirubugara, Editor
©O. Nyirubugara,October 2006

Africa is traditionally said to always lag far behind other continents. At least this is the image that most media reflect in their reports. My point of view is that Africa has been lagging far but is now skipping intermediate stages to reach the current development stage where first world and second world countries are at this moment. And this principle will guide near future development projects in Africa. The information sector is steadily moving towards newly born citizen journalism, thereby skipping the traditional information chain that starts with a journalist who reports news and ends with a public who consume that news. My reflection here will turn around the move from this U model to the closed O model where the public reports and consumes news. My position as content coordinator for one of Africa Interactive’s platform known as between June 2007 and August 2008 has put me on the other side of the news-production chain where my task was to interact not only with African professional journalists but also with citizen journalists.

1. U sides bending

U-to-O shift: From journalist -to- news consumer model to generator-consumer model. ©O. Nyirubugara

Put in simple terms, I would say that the traditional news industry chain has a U form. The professional journalist collects raw material from the ground and turns them into a story (step 1 in the chain) that an editor proofreads and publishes (step2) for a certain public (step3). Personally, I have worked at step 1 level in the Central African Republic (CAR) from 2002 until 2004. As content coordinator, I was at step 2 level, which gave me a global image of how information circulates in the traditional U model.

As I write, the news industry is undergoing a major metamorphosis. The two vertical sides of the U are bending and the two ends are on the point of closing to turn the U into an O. More and more citizens are using means at their disposal to collect news (step 1), which they send to a media organisation (step2), for other citizens to read (Step3). Thus, stories are produced by citizens for other citizens, which makes it a complete circle.

The question now is to know the role media organisations are playing in the O process. That role is primarily logistical and technical, that is, providing an appropriate medium that can allow instant self-publishing. However, not all citizen journalism platforms allow self-publishing depending on their goals and policies. Even those like Africa Interactive which have much self-publishing openness, they have an editorial policy and a code of conduct, which infers that although a citizen can freely and instantly publish, his/her posting can be removed if it infringes the code f conduct. This is actually the secondary role of media organisations: facilitating and moderating the whole process, which makes the O not always completely closed.

2. Criss-cross journalism

O model

O model: News generators are also news consumers
©O. Nyirubugara

Most major online papers have now fields reserved for comments and reactions from users. However, this does not change the U model as the news maker remains the journalist while the consumer is the public who have no role at all in the news making process. The only change is that the readers are no longer passive news consumers, but this does not force the two ends of the U to meet.

The most interesting thing in citizen journalism is that citizens not only publish their own stories, but also react to the stories of others. Let me use the statistics of Africa Interactive at the time when I was there. When I joined the company in June 2007, there were at most ten journalists and webloggers. In august, we moved from the second generation website (no self-publishing among others) to the third generation, which is user-friendlier, interactive and thus suitable for citizen journalists. The result of that change of platform was that in December 90 citizen journalists had joined the network. In May 2008, there were 260 people registered from 32 African countries. These were part of 3471 registered users of whom 580 had an active publishing space (previously called weblog). I would thus say that there were 3471 potential citizen journalists in Africa, among whom 580 were really reporting, others contenting themselves with reacting to and commenting others’ postings. The reaction aspect transforms that O model into a sort of web where ideas criss-cross from all parts of the continent.

I remember one passionate discussion about male circumcision which American researchers thought would help reduce HIV/AIDS. One citizen journalist from Kenya wrote about it, expressing his positive opinion about that finding. Others, from other cultures that forbid male circumcision replied vehemently. A chain of reactions followed and all their stories and reactions made some sense. As an African dealing daily with those stories, I concluded that Africans had finally found a way to express their concerns about their continent and their future without relying on their political leaders. Normally HIV/AIDS and other sex-related issues were taboos even in the private sphere. Now, with citizen journalism, ordinary citizens not only talk about those taboo subjects, but also they allow themselves to challenge findings by eminent American researchers. A few years back, such finding would have be announced on the BBC or CNN with the researchers unilaterally explaining the benefits of male circumcision and colleagues of theirs supporting them or counter-arguing. The process would stop there, and the citizens would just wait until their leaders enacted the laws making that practice compulsory. The big change brought by citizen journalism in this respect, is that Africans are no longer passive actors in situations that concern them. The undeniable fact is that citizen journalism, though at the infancy stage, is already revolutionizing Africa.

3-Breaking and distorting the circle

I am very optimistic about the future of citizen journalism but my optimism has some reservation. The e-mails I received from our citizen journalists in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, to name a few, are sometimes discouraging. One citizen journalist in Ethiopia was nearly fired from his job because his posting had been republished by a local paper with his real name. He did not stop reporting – which is rather encouraging - but he changed his name. My analysis of this, is that when society is mediaphobic, each and every one is afraid of journalists, whether citizen or professional. Journalists bring news out and are perceived as spies. Therefore, no employer will keep someone in the company knowing that that person is [citizen] journalist. In such societies, the O chain is exposed to disruption which, in my opinion, is harmful to democracy and good governance.

Another big obstacle is that citizen journalism is open to political manipulation. Any body can publish any thing at any time. Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe could have sent 1,000 people to all Harare cyber cafés to send ‘innocent’ and spontaneous citizen reports to the BBC, AfricaNews and others, and they would have inundated the world with false reports on their country. This is to say that the road ahead is not so bright as, contrary to conventional journalism, faces behind citizen stories remain invisible. Thus the O is not always a sharp circle and is exposed to not easily-detectable distortions.

I was arguing in the previous section that not all media organs allow African citizen journalists to publish themselves instantly. One good example I have in mind is the BBC coverage of the March 29th elections in Zimbabwe. As all western journalists and media were banned, the BBC turned to citizens. It opened a special page, where one could read: This message came by SMS from a contributor in Bulawayo…. This other message came in by e-mail from a contributor in Harare. AfricaNews did exactly the same and actually the embargo imposed by Mugabe produced little effect, simply because citizens have become journalists thanks to the internet, mobile phones and digital cameras, among others. The ban actually made the O bolder than ever before as the U counterpart was almost non existent.

4. Skipping intermediate stages

I introduced my reflection saying that Africa is quickly filling the development gap that used to separate her from the first and second worlds. Many homes are moving directly from total darkness to green light without transiting by electrical power, others have moved from drum communication to third generation mobile phones and will never know what a land line looks like. Sometimes I discuss with Dutch colleagues whom I keep telling that Africa has an exceptional chance in her developmental process because most steps are quickly taken or even skipped. Most African countries are now planning to build railways. Will they start with coal-powered trains or they will directly jump to the latest high-speed trains? I am sure the latter will be the case.

Let me give you one personal story. In 2001, I got my first mobile phone. At that time, it was a tool for the elite not only in Bangui but also in the rest of Africa. When I left in 2004, about 50 percent of people in the capital had phones. Until 2006, when my friend called or e-mailed me from Africa, the first thing they would ask me to send them was a mobile phone. My fellow Africans in the West have exactly the same story. Now almost every body has a phone. From 2007 to present, people ask for lap tops. The point is not that they are beggars. No! They are rather willing to move together with development and technology. Now that the optic fibre cables are almost finished, Africa will jump from no-connectivity to broadband, skipping the dial-up step.

In my eyes, these multiple skips constitute a major factor that favoured the birth and growth of citizen journalism in Africa. It is even a natural process that when new instruments are available, users will quickly take advantage of them and explore new horizons. The most crucial issue is that at this moment, not everybody has easy access to a computer not to talk of a connected one.

5-Conclusion: U-O meeting point

Citizen journalism in Africa is still at the infancy stage due to lack of appropriate technologies, expensiveness of basic tools such as computers and internet connections, digital cameras, third generation phones, etc. However, the trend is more and more local and international organisations are getting more and more interested in citizen content. I mentioned in the beginning of section four that a posting by an Ethiopian citizen journalist put him in trouble because it had appeared in a local paper. I also mentioned the BBC coverage of the Zimbabwe elections, which all show that sometime in the future, papers, radio, TV and internet media companies will integrate citizen contents in their business model.