Citizen journalism on the radar of mainstream news

(Originally published by Positive News)

One of Radar's citizen reporters in action
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. Libby wanted to build a global network of citizen reporters in isolated and excluded communities using the most widely available technology: SMS messaging. 

Citizen reporters in remote regions of the third world 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, Libby 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.   

Citizen reporter Elizabeth Katta in Sierra Leona
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.”