Shifting the power:
a toolkit for journalists
Lowering the barriers to inclusion
After seven years of working with communities around the world, one message has been heard, loud and clear: we all share a deep desire to speak and be heard on the matters that affect our lives. What has also emerged is a fascinating commonality in the challenges that arise from the imbalance of power between the heard and unheard.
From the UK dementia community, to election trackers in the Niger Delta, to textile workers in Bangladesh or community reporters on the frontline of Ebola, there have been five recurring barriers that communities and individuals have faced when trying to have their say. This toolkit offers a pathway for communities to identify and overcome those challenges and share their experiences with dignity and power.
Exploring the 5 C's
Do participants trust you? Are they on board with the aims of the project? Do they believe that speaking out will result in meaningful change?
It can be hard for individuals to believe that sharing their experiences will result in meaningful change. Social marginalisation or a breakdown in trust in institutions can lead to a well-founded fear that sharing a story may create further isolation, criticism or disrespect. Extractive journalism can give rise to stereotypes or single stories that cause deep damage. Communities may not trust media or institutions who have, in the past, distorted their words in order to sensationalise.
The loss of conviction is a challenge for both contributors and consumers. There is a parallel breakdown in audience trust in traditional media houses, who are often seen to be occupying an ivory tower well away from the realities of civic life, and in social media spaces, often perceived to be biased and permeated with fake news. As a result, people retreat into echo chambers they trust and because they do not see themselves in mainstream public discourse, there is less chance of them seeing the media as a potential platform for change.
It is possible that, even with the best intentions, a potential collaboration may be viewed with suspicion by a participant with previous experience of being poorly treated or misrepresented. Ensuring they feel invited in at the very early stages of planning and design may help to ease concerns. We have also found that interesting new ideas will emerge if communities are invited in to the scoping and co-design stage. A sense of ownership or genuine engagement helps build trust.
Traditional design processes can perpetuate marginalisation; the same people commissioning projects are the ones leading the design and delivery of the projects. The design phase is the first opportunity to break this cycle. Opening up the design of a project to those who are due to be represented by that project offers a brilliant chance to create a shared mission and explore creative routes that may have evaded an internal design team. It allows you to hear which barriers are preventing a community from being heard. To get the most out of a co-design process, the emphasis needs to rest on listening and responding to a genuine problem rather than arriving with a pre-emptive idea or solution.
There are a range of tools and activities that will help keep this process on track. These include resources to address safeguarding, power mapping, risk assessments, exploring a theory of change, and more playful activities to break the ice, promote open discussions, and prompt creative thought.
The key is that the participants feel heard and understand that they hold a critical role in guiding the project. There is a spectrum to this: some projects will want to put that control firmly in the hands of the participants, allowing them to guide both the creative direction and the storytelling itself; other projects will carve out clear and genuine moments for participants to input into the design and direction while retaining some central control. Wherever your project lies on that spectrum it must offer an authentic opportunity for collaboration. Tokenism will be spotted immediately and can further erode conviction in the media. If done well, the creative process will emerge as stronger and more authentic, creating essential buy in from all stakeholders.
Do participants have the skills, access and resources required to report on a story safely, securely and accurately?
Very few people have the opportunity to go through professional journalism training and fewer still will go on to have access to quality production tools or be given a platform for their work. Introducing the concepts of newsgathering and storytelling to communities can be a real pleasure as many of the skills required are already innate in social interaction: inquiring after friends and family, witnessing exchanges and events, hearing about the latest issues from community leaders, questioning local politicians or service providers over decisions and actions. Many of those participating will already have had to be their own advocates and rise up against prejudice or a lack of justice.
There is a critical role in reframing these capabilities as valuable journalistic skills and adding to them through training and mentoring. In particular, there is a need to enhance understanding around the importance of personal safety, source protection and privacy during the reporting process, as well as helping groups to recognise the impact of their own power relationships and bias. Capacity-building for reporting must remain responsive as each participant will also bring unique challenges. At the keenest end of the spectrum, a lack of formal literacy or fluency in an official language can pose additional challenges, while certain disabilities can hinder audio visual engagement and production. Taking the time to understand that capacity challenges and finding the right tools and training mechanisms to mitigate them challenges is key, for example audio reporter training for those with little or no literacy.
Training and skills-share sit at the heart of communications capacity-building and can be both a learning opportunity and a creative process in its own right. Training can be delivered remotely via digital or mobile, with pre-recorded modules sent to participants who can learn at their own pace. Workshops can be held within community spaces or bring participants together in a central space over two to three day sessions. The content of the training can be adapted to each unique context but key modules cover the basics of reporting, finding sources, conducting interviews, verification, triangulation, use of mobile or digital tools, along with appropriate guidance in safeguarding, privacy and data protection.
You can only impart a limited amount of knowledge in such a short period, so a good training session should leave a group with a sense of camaraderie and a solid grasp of the principles of community reporting, as well as a clear understanding of where their own boundaries and limitations lie. From a publisher’s point of view, this kind of training mitigates the pitfalls of citizen journalism, with sources and facts properly verified, but still has all the benefit of that unique, on-the-ground perspective. Make sure all spaces and resources are accessible and responsive to the learning needs of individual trainees.
Where does the power come from to find your voice?
In a society where the dominant narratives are shaped by elites, the voices of marginalised groups and individuals are routinely ignored. When people don’t see themselves reflected in the media, or find they are routinely demonised by the press, it can erode a sense of self worth. Boosting skills can help to raise self-esteem but there is a deeper level of work needed to undo cultural and social messaging and ensure that each person feels able to claim their space and raise their voice. This can be done through group work or individual mentoring and requires time built in to projects to listen and respond to a participant’s unique circumstance. This stage of the process can pose real challenges; how far can this go before it becomes a therapeutic process and requires a higher level of professional support? How to ensure that no harm is done by raising expectations that individual stories may result in change?
In addition, predicting the amount of support someone is going to need is difficult, particularly as emotions can run high when sharing vulnerabilities and painful experiences. As a result, confidence building requires boundaries that bring clarity to the roles and relationships, and what everyone might expect from a collaboration, while retaining the flexibility to be able to respond with humanity when challenges arise. This does not all have to be held by one person. Working with a referring partner is critical here, as they should have services and support infrastructure in place to help. If not, this is something to consider at the very earliest stages of the planning. Finally, feedback plays an important role in building confidence. Seeing work published on a well respected platform can give people a real boost so it’s vital to build in time and budget to ensure participants are given a chance to see the final publication and hear the reactions of their audiences.
Coaching and mentoring
Establishing a mentoring plan involves allocating time and resources to listen to participants’ experiences, and, when invited, to share your own knowledge, skills and experience. A participant may want guidance on how to frame their story for a particular audience, or get some creative feedback on their reporting. They may come across ethical issues that they need to discuss or have been told a difficult story that has left them feeling overwhelmed. On shorter term projects, this support can end up being a specific coaching experience, focused on a particular story or production. For longer collaborations, it can become a broader mentoring relationship based on a desire to build a participant’s confidence and ability over time.
Choosing the right mentor and the right channel for that process is important. The mentor could be an internal role, or held by an external trained professional, or perhaps facilitated by a local partner. Equally it could be a peer-to-peer relationship held by someone who shares lived experience with the participant, in which case the value added is less of the professional skills and more about the confidence that comes with a shared history. While it helps for each participant to have a personal mentor, at a push you can foster a positive group environment for mentoring which can enable everyone to play the role of both the mentor and the mentee. There are also technical options for holding that space. Phone calls, chat apps or SMS, and in- person meetings are all tried and tested channels for remaining in contact. Keeping a note of mentoring exchanges, or recording with permission, can be a useful way of checking in on progress as well as ensuring both parties are protected in the case of any concerns arising. While mentoring can be a challenging part of the process, it has the potential to significantly enrich the depth and quality of any collaboration as well as leaving a legacy of self-development for those involved.
Do participants have barriers to digital engagement and, if so, what tools are they using already to communicate?
It is a myth that the whole world is online and digitally literate - there is often an assumption that the majority of communities across the globe have access to the internet due to the increasing availability of affordable mobile handsets, the distribution of telecommunications networks and access to wifi and mobile data While this is indeed on the rise, the internet is only currently accessible to less than half of the global population. Those who are ‘end of the line’ communities, living in remote rural regions, are often out of range, while certain demographics, such as women and girls, older people, the very young or those with disabilities are less likely to have independent access due to financial constraints or power imbalances. Even among those who live in connected areas and have access to a handset, it can be a challenge to afford data packages or phone credit, or even find reliable electricity to charge a device. During crises or periods of extreme weather, connected communities can find their internet access controlled or cut off leaving them with little or no way to share information.
The internet is perceived as becoming more inclusive and while a positive shift towards more diversity of online voices online is to be celebrated, there are glaring demographic and regional holes in online dialogue. Ownership and editorial planning remains in the realm of the elite. Furthermore, the design of the next phase of technology is happening without the majority. Analysis shows that the early adopters of digital technology and media platforms are disproportionately white, male, middle-class and college-educated. As development moves on, there may well arise an even more significant digital divide. Sharing of text and audio-visual via a mobile is one leap, but engaging with news via virtual reality may well move public discourse even further out of reach.
As the world becomes increasingly digitised, there is a crucial role in ensuring those in the least connected spaces are not left without a means to share information. The increasing prevalence of mobile handsets offers a brilliant opportunity to draw a significant proportion of the global population into public conversations. Short text (via SMS) and voice technologies (via phone calls) offer a ‘common denominator’ as they are available on every handset, compatible with most media platforms, and many people already feel comfortable using them as communication tools.
The use of SMS for breaking news shot to the foreground during the Arab Spring, when those involved in the emerging uprisings used SMS to share news with online and mobile communities, and eventually, directly with global news outlets. Similarly, as chat apps downloads increase among previously offline groups, more and more people have the option to share audio visual content from their phone.
There is a role for platforms and tools that consolidate and manage incoming messages for newsgathering. On Our Radar has a community insight and storytelling solution called Radius which does just that. The best technology solutions build on the fact that the original resource for information-sharing has always been human interaction. Training community members in ‘crowdsourcing’ can extend ‘connectivity’ well beyond those with internet access or mobile devices. By dovetailing technical and human capacity, and committing to a genuine co-design information can flow back and forth from the more hidden regions.
Do participants have the necessary technical skills to deliver media that is of broadcast quality or ready to be shared internationally on digital platforms?
Very few people have the opportunity to go through professional journalism training and fewer still will go on to have access to quality production tools or be given a platform for their work. Despite the advances in audio visual capacity within mobile equipment, there remains a high barrier to entry into the mediasphere. Someone wanting to share a public story is likely to find their lack of production skills can result in a discerning media outlet turning down content. Despite a potential acknowledgement that a story may hold a valuable message, that content is likely to be rejected if the presentation is perceived as amatuer or lacking in professional standards. While the rise of citizen content during the Arab Spring shifted this somewhat, the relaxation of the ‘rules’ that allows for grainy mobile footage to be aired on prime time TV is reserved for humanitarian and political crises and not for the more entrenched social issues that underpin most marginalisation.
There is therefore a valuable partnership between those with professional experience and editorial networks and those with lived experience and community networks to collaborate. While it can take a great deal of training to genuinely raise production standards among communities, it is just as valid to negate that barrier by offering legal, editorial and production skills as a service to communities and working with them as equal collaborators. Over time, this relationship can evolve to the point where the transfer of those professional production skills becomes more realistic and appropriate. That can be a great moment for someone who has found value in the experience of community reporting and can see a pathway for them to a more professional journalistic role.
Co-production is the realisation of that co-designed process, whereby professional production skills can compliment community knowledge and access, and the raw insight of lived experiences. When this works well, reporters come away from a project with enhanced skills and improved confidence, and refreshed levels of trust, having truly participated in the process. They should have something they are proud of to share. For broadcasters, having the voices and perspectives of those most affected by an issue present as both the storyteller and as an advisor to the production process, is invaluable. As mentioned, the goal is not necessarily to place the camera, mic or pen in the hands of participants (although that can be done to great effect in the right context) but instead to match their access and knowledge with professional skills. Community members may take the lead in developing initial stories, researching leads within their networks. They can build trust around the project and negotiate access in the appropriate spaces. Together with their community, they can help to set the tone and angle of the story, leading on the interview process and staying in touch with interviewees as the project goes towards production. Alongside this, your team may continue to oversee the development of the story arc, work on the visual style and feel of the final product, while ensuring that the appropriate compliance and consent protocols are upheld. Once in the final stages, there will be a need to oversee the editing process to ensure it reflects the tone set out in the co-design process.
The key in co-production is to build a collaborative space - finding ways of telling a story that reflect the experiences and attitudes of the community that can be packaged in a way that will work for your audiences, harnessing the access and authenticity of communities as narrators.
A note on consent
Consent is the starting-block for all collaboration. It goes well beyond a signature on a form. Holding an open and honest conversation about expectations and potential consequences of sharing information is critical to establishing a genuinely consensual collaboration. Vulnerability and dependence on a person or a service can greatly influence someone’s decision to engage, particularly if they fear that non-consent will lead to loss. Some conditions cloud judgement and impact on decision-making. For very young participants, there are additional layers of concern. Establishing genuine consent at the start of a collaboration, and returning to it during longer collaborations, is essential but not always easy. Take the time needed to get it right.