Jamlab Africa journalist Lwazi Maseko explains that engaged journalism aims to close the gap between newsrooms and their audiences by viewing journalism as a conversation and involving the audience in the reporting process. Maseko held a webinar discussing how this gap can be closed, citing practical examples.

Membership and engagement manager at the Global Forum for Media Development, Fiona Nzingo, sees community-centered journalism as a key agent of participatory development as this brings interest in the community and creates a personal impact that is recognised by governments, international development agencies and civil society.

Juanita Williams, managing editor for AllAfrica.com says it is important to consider the communities’ needs when reporting on stories. “This is important when thinking about engagement. Allafrica.com tries to speak to our sources and the stories they are telling to build a relationship as this helps when it comes to engagement”. Juanita says historically, journalists have been told that objectivity is important and engagement comes along and blows all that up. “Engagement to a certain extent is about making money for media companies, it is a revenue driver, if you don’t engage with your audience, you will be reporting on stories which are unimportant to them,” says Williams.

Williams says journalists can bridge the gap between objectivity and engaged journalism by meeting people exactly where they are. “Journalists should not go to stories with an angle already in mind, this all ties in [with] telling the truth, being accurate and also telling their truth, which is really important,” says Williams.

Nzingo agrees and suggests that journalists and the communities they report on should also be in synergy in order for engaged journalism to be effective. “This synergy needs to go through different methods, unique to every community, in order for them to achieve effective partnership and collaboration,” says Nzingo. She suggests for journalists who have not started this, that they need to think differently about story selection, framing and distribution of content, in the time we are now. Nzingo believes there is room to reach out to audiences who are not consuming our news and think of how we can include them. She says it is crucial for journalists, as they select and frame stories, to always involve community members.

Maseko asked Williams how AllAfrica.com engages with the communities they serve and how often this is done. Williams explained that they engage with communities with specific stories as they have freelance journalists in some parts of the continent. She says part of the model of Allafrica.com is that the organisation collaborates across the borders of the continent. “If you find that there is an important issue in Kenya, let’s say flooding, it’s not only a Kenyan issue, it’s in Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, it’s all around the continent. We can link it to the climate crisis,” says Williams.

She recalls when the publication asked one of the farmers they had previously interviewed, to record footage of the flooding in Kenya and how they had to explain in detail how to record as the farmer was not familiar with technology. She says often time language barriers and other challenges prevent them from covering stories they would like to but it is important for publications to use what they have.

Nzingo made reference to the drought in Kenya and how some journalists struggled to explain this information to their audiences. She says as times change and news consumption patterns change, journalists should take up training and workshops that will help convey such information to their audiences in a way that would be easily digested. “This will show the audience that we are talking about things happening to you,” says Nzingo.

Williams agrees and adds that says people living in these communities are the experts, she says they might not have the jargon associated with the issue but their lives are affected every day by the climate crisis. She says going to a climate crisis story does not need a journalist to be an expert on climate crisis issues, rather she says, all that is needed is knowing that the community is badly affected by climate. “Everything is a climate story, we can talk about anything and can lead back to governance, health, everything is inter-connected,” says Williams.

Maseko asked about how social media has changed the way content is being consumed and produced. Williams says for the past few years, publications have been chasing social media but they have their own algorithms and rule. “We come in and have to play by their rules, this is not a good playground nor is it equal. Social media has changed the media landscape so dramatically and I don’t know if this is for the better,” she says. She adds that engagement has also skewed how stories are being approached, there are people with thousands of followers, and their engagement is great but they make no contribution.

“AllAfrica.com has a sustainable development impact focus when it comes to covering stories,” says Williams. She says the need for social media engagement and the drive for it,  is not a direct indication of how media organisations work. “There is so much about journalism that one can’t measure, we have to balance business, hold ideals of ethics and what we want to do about journalism but this is a challenge. We have to balance this with revenue but one of the challenges is funding,” says Williams.

Nzingo agreed but had reservations, she believes social media platforms can assist community-centered journalism as it gives an opportunity for journalists to engage communities on stories. She believes that funders for media organisations are only supported when they need an organisation to share specific information. “At GFMD we experience this challenge with our members, where they only have to end up sharing some information or take a certain project as a donor wants to reach their own target. We have started an initiative called Impact, where we’re trying to bridge the gap with donors and organisations they fund,” says Nzingo. She says their organisation (GFMD) talks to donors on behalf of these organisations and informs them that their requirement is not serving that particular community, so they try and come up with a tailor-made solution. Nzingo believes this will change how organisations are receiving funding in the continent.

Nzingo suggests some tools that journalists can use to get the attention of news consumers, such as polls, to gauge their audience’s understanding of a certain issue. She says the information gathered from the poll can direct the organisation on stories that they could cover. “Some of these gaps, issues where they were not knowledgeable on, we could write articles to inform on such issues,” she says. She says looking at the analytics also helps in creating tailor-made content for your audience.

Nzingo also states that transparency assists with the trust of your audiences and informs your audience how an organisation will be using the data gathered through polls, which may be used in influencing policy-making across the continent. Williams says the challenge with trust amongst journalists and their audiences is how systems and misinformation have played a huge part in how trustworthy people find journalism. She believes that in some instances misinformation thrives as some people have information that reinforces their beliefs already and it would be difficult for journalists to try and change these people’s minds. “When I was studying, objectivity was focused on so much as this meant that journalists felt nothing for the information in the story but that has proven to be impossible as journalists are human,” says Williams. She says journalism is about the basic truth which is about the facts.

Nzingo believes that journalists can learn a lot from how content creators engage and understand their audiences. She stresses that this may not be from their messaging but from how they build, keep and interact with their audiences. “One of the things that would help is working with digital platforms and involving journalists in advocacy and policy efforts with digital platforms like Meta, where there is a synergy to verify pages. This will also provide a source of credibility to someone who is receiving this information,” says Nzingo. She says there is a lot of collaboration needed to promote journalism in the digital space and believes that trust can be rebuilt but will take time.

Williams says journalists need to adapt to the times, should they resist this change, they risk being irrelevant in the coming years. Nzingo agrees and says the media is also missing a lot of the old-school aspect which is really important. Williams says media organisations need journalists who have basic ethics of the craft.

She touched on artificial intelligence (AI) and its incorporation in the newsroom, she believes journalists need to equip themselves on how to effectively use AI. “This is not like AI is going to take our jobs soon, many people have their theories but knowing how fast technology is moving, journalists need to learn,” says Williams.

Nzingo believes it’s important to figure out how much journalism is transferring into the digital space and whether journalism has caught up. “I personally have a bittersweet relationship with ChatGPT, it is coming in fast but we need to ask ourselves whether we have reached that level. There are some aspects which we need to pause and properly understand,” she says. She made the example of inaccuracies with Chat GPT and instances where the AI tool has undermined efforts the journalism space has been working hard to disseminate like misinformation.

Watch the full webinar here.



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