Mallick Mnela, the founder of iHubOnline, is an alumnus of the Jamlab Accelerator Programme in 2020 and has launched a new initiative, the Child-Friendly Journalism Initiative, which leverages the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve the quality of child-friendly journalism in Malawi. They are working to create a Malawian society where children are free from violence, exploitation, and discrimination through media advocacy.

Image: Provided

iHubOnline is a small media company that started in 2018 but got registered in 2019. It started with a focus on community journalism, accessing grants from the European Union because of its novel approach. The irony is that the company built resilience at the start of Covid-19.

One of the grants was accessed for Covid-19 response from the International Media Support (IMS). During that time, they acquired live-streaming equipment, which enabled them to offer professional virtual event meetings during the lockdown period. They were among the first to offer virtual events moderation services, and they leveraged the “early mover advantage” for fast-paced growth as a media company. During this period, they worked for high-profile clients based in Malawi including, but not limited to, UNDP, UNICEF, World Bank, the National Planning Commission, and Save the Children, among others.

However, as Covid-19 subsided, demand for their cash cow services (live-streaming, virtual events, and hybrid events) declined drastically, and they had to strategically position themselves for the long haul.

During the 2020 Jamlab Accelerator Programme, they had the opportunity to evaluate their options for partnerships and diversification for sustainable operations. They explored service portfolios that provided opportunities for differentiation. Media monitoring, innovation, and consultancy in the area of children and the media showed greater potential. They chose the children’s niche as they wanted to stay focused but also because that’s where they already had partnerships, expertise, and some semblance of thought leadership, locally and internationally. Mnela says that the “business acumen acquired during the Jamlab Accelerator Programme will always be a guide on our business decision-making for our survival”.

Mnela says: “Most media solutions target practitioners. We have deliberately included a component where we encourage journalism students to focus their academic research on child-friendly journalism. This creates a link among players in the media, academia and advocacy. We believe student journalists can play a critical role today and in the future. As a result, we expect that child-focused organisations will be more willing to support our cause with funding and different kinds of support to ensure that we fulfill our ambitious milestones in child-friendly journalism”.

1.  Why did you decide to create or introduce this Child-Friendly Journalism Initiative?

The Child-Friendly Journalism Initiative is a result of a legacy of underutilised expertise. As a media entrepreneur, I had worked on several high-profile projects in training and mentoring journalists in child-friendly journalism concepts across Africa. I had written a guidebook for Malawian journalists. This played a critical role in iHubOnline to work on a big media monitoring project in Malawi. We utilised our legacy individual and institutional capacities and capabilities. In the process, we learned we had more to offer. Unbeknownst to us in the early days was that some technological know-how we had acquired had the potential to offer us leverage to innovate more, particularly in the space of Artificial Intelligence [AI]. Upon assessment of where we were coming from and where we are heading in preparation for 2023, we realised that our internal capacity to build AI-powered virtual editorial assistants was something we could leverage upon within journalism. We thus developed a unit and built the website where we posted our custom virtual editorial assistants to assist journalists in pursuing children’s stories ethically. We believe in doing this, we are building on our services in media monitoring and journalism training spaces, thereby creating a solid foundation for revenue through consultancies, partnerships or grants from organisations interested in promoting child-friendly journalism. Because of our internal ability to build AI-powered chatbots and websites, we believe we have the potential to support journalism bodies in Malawi or beyond to build their bespoke solutions as a new revenue stream.

2.  How will this initiative improve the quality of child-friendly journalism?

From our work in media monitoring, training, and conversations with journalists, we noted that child-friendly journalism is not something seriously considered in newsrooms. Journalists are either trained or groomed to operate in an environment that doesn’t always appear to be child friendly. Some of the reasons include a lack of access to mentorship, coaching and assessment sessions. Therefore, having access to our virtual editorial assistants offers journalists a readily available solution. We have made sure that they get help on our website, on WhatsApp and on Facebook Messenger. We have also provided the option to escalate queries to humans who can offer extra support as needed. This level of support is premium and has the potential to transform how the media reports on children’s issues in Malawi and beyond. Soon, we hope to step up into child-focused fact-checking. We are currently in talks with a UK-based organisation called Full Fact to learn how we can embrace AI for our children-focused fact-checking undertakings.

3. How will this initiative serve or help both the community and journalists?

The initiative targets journalists, children, and stakeholders with a vested interest in either children or the media. Our overall goal is to ensure that harms unwittingly perpetrated by the media [against children] are minimised or eliminated. If left unchecked, they would have greater negative consequences now and in the future. By ensuring that journalists report ethically on children’s issues, we offer the media the opportunity to nurture children to become responsible citizens. Using the different methodologies, we support journalists to observe ethics of commission [doing the right things to promote children’s best interests] and ethics of omission [excluding things that are harmful to children’s interests or even deemed to be in the public interest]. The initiative takes a holistic approach to advocacy journalism building on prevalent regulatory frameworks, including code of ethics and laws. It offers journalists a chance to be professional, not based on emotional appeal, but statutes. It also seeks to provide children with the necessary media literacy skills to become informed consumers of media content and, given a chance, co-producers of content on issues interesting to them. We believe in a community where journalists prioritise child-friendly journalism, and children’s rights are promoted through ethical reporting. Through access to mentorship and guidance from virtual editorial assistants powered by AI, journalists can produce informed, accurate and respectful stories about children’s issues. Ultimately, this approach helps create a community where children are valued and respected

4. The initiative leverages AI, can you explain how it uses AI to improve the quality of child-friendly journalism in Malawi?

Basically, we started using ChatGPT integration using OpenAI’s language model. However, training the model to stay the course proved difficult for us. We then opted to go the custom route where we built custom models that are being trained on child-friendly journalism only. Because of the kind of training our virtual editorial assistants are subjected to, they become competent experts on the specific topic. They offer instantaneous support and guidance without churning out misinformation or distorted facts. Using natural language processing (NLP) algorithms and machine learning, we can feed our custom virtual editorial assistants with specific and relevant information on child-friendly journalism. We have even created a scenario of them acknowledging they are ignorant of some issues giving us the opportunity to track areas of further learning and training.

5. AI has been highly debated with conversations questioning whether AI is beneficial or harmful. Why did you choose an AI-powered initiative?

We use AI as a tool to achieve our goals to evangelise child-friendly journalism, not as the ultimate solution. Our AI technology enables efficient knowledge sharing, but it is only a part of the process. Human curators carefully select and validate the information that is processed by AI. We ensure that data is processed accurately through rigorous testing. For example, when our virtual editorial assistant does not have an answer, it will acknowledge it and escalate the matter to a human expert who can provide a reliable response. The decision to proceed with implementation was after tests. Going forward, we are open to improvements based on bugs found along the way. But so far, we know it works well and positively. The advantages of offering reliable editorial guidance and mentorship 24/7 give us the opportunity to tremendously reduce the media’s inadvertent harm towards children. It may be journalists’ prejudice, negative portrayal, unwarranted or illegal disclosure of children’s identities, and the like. Unlike the popular generic ChatGPT, our AI solution is trained with specific data. For example, our custom virtual assistant will suggest real references, refer users to our website or escalate an issue to a human expert for guidance.

6. What are some of the benefits you think AI will and can offer journalism, particularly in Africa?

Artificial Intelligence offers opportunities for Africa to equalise with the rest of the advanced world. AI can make knowledge easily accessible, bridging the existing knowledge gaps. As illustrated in the case of child-friendly journalism, we know there are a few child-friendly journalism experts and advocates available to journalists. But even if these cadres exist, their footprint would still be limited to a particular geography or jurisdiction. For them to be accessible, we also need their undivided attention and physical presence. In that regard, the major issue is cost and impact in terms of journalists reached. But as illustrated in our case, a machine, with just proper training, can reach thousands of journalists on their mobile phones, asking their different questions and getting responses on the website, on WhatsApp, or on Facebook Messenger.

8. How will this initiative protect and promote the interests of children?

Generally, journalists purport to operate in the public interest. This is well anchored in codes of practice across the globe. However, the public interest is not the only determinant of what makes it into the news or not. Many journalistic codes of practice also provide for child-friendly journalism. In some countries, there are laws to regulate how the media should cover children in different circumstances. Child-friendly journalism requires that all activities of journalists must be in the children’s best interest. Where public interest comes into contest with the child’s best interest, the ethical and, in some cases, the legal obligation is to ensure that the child’s best interest prevails. Unfortunately, this paradigm, despite having a solid basis in international treaties, national legislation, and journalism code of conduct, is often ignored. We believe that our initiative will not only stimulate debate and refresh the conversation around the role of the media in championing the rights and welfare of children. Our goal is to improve the status quo through the provision of action-oriented guidance and tools. We expect an improvement in the quality and quantity of coverage of children’s issues in the media in Malawi and across the African region. We also believe taking advantage of AI in this endeavour is an opportunity of unprecedented magnitude in the history of child-friendly journalism across Africa.

7.) Lastly how can journalists use or access this initiative or programme?

We have it on the website, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. We are currently building a database of codes of ethics and children-related media laws across Africa. We have extensively tested with Malawi, where we are based. Meanwhile, colleagues from elsewhere in the region [South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe] have said it works, fundamentally. Our medium-term goal is to ensure the offerings are country-context specific. For example, a journalist in Kenya should be given the Kenyan context of what the laws and professional codes of that country stipulate to guide the journalistic practice on children’s issues. This will require a lot, but we are determined to make it happen.

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