“Mobile journalism is worth promoting particularly in Africa as we have hard-to-reach areas with communities whose stories need to be told,” says Privilege Musvanhiri, a freelance multimedia journalist. Mobile journalism is a form of media storytelling where reporters use portable electronic devices to gather, edit and distribute news from their communities.

Musvanhiri says that “people need to understand that mobile phones are not only used for texting and social media platforms but can be a tool that can be used to produce serious news content”. He says that when filming in some communities, people are reluctant to be interviewed because their perception of journalists filming with mobile phones is that they will sensationalise a story and it will only be uploaded to social media platforms. “They take you seriously when they see you with a big camera,” says Musavanhiri.

Vinícius Assis, a Brazilian mobile journalist for African countries, says that there is a perception or mentality that professional content cannot be produced using a mobile phone. Assis says “the industry is changing very quickly so you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to buy a big camera to do a good job”.

Musavanhiri says that he enjoys “working with mobile phones because it is quicker to set up as compared to a conventional camera. With mobile journalism, it offers quick feedback from viewers, listeners, and followers. With my mobile phone, I am doing everything using a mobile and all the social media platforms and media websites I use to upload the video are already on the mobile phone so the moment I upload something I can be able to easily follow the response”.

Yulia Panevina, a mobile journalist based in Senegal says that mobile journalism “enables new forms of storytelling and supports a more inclusive approach to journalism. Also, there’s no faster way to break stories in the field than with a phone as we’re living in a competitive news environment”.

The challenges with mobile journalism

“Using a mobile phone to film requires you to be closer to your subjects, for example, if there is a protest and it turns violent you cannot cover it from a distance, you need to be closer which can be dangerous,” says Musavanhiri. Adding that phones are unable to zoom to the extent that cameras can without losing the quality of the visuals.

Ihsaan Haffejee, a visual journalist who uses video and filmmaking to better tell South African stories, says that one of the challenges he faces is trying to negotiate access to stories. “People are confused as to why you are there or are sceptical about what you are going to do with their story.” Haffejee says as a journalist, “you need to make people understand what your role is and what you aim to do and be as honest with them as you can. With most people you can get them to agree [to being filmed]”.

When reporting, journalists face violence and encounter traumatic events. Haffejee says that dealing with trauma and violence as a journalist is tough and it has a major impact on a journalist. “It is difficult interviewing someone who has been through a traumatic experience you are unfortunately asking them to relive that trauma,” he says. Haffejee says that he once interviewed a man that had lost his children in a shack (small shelter) fire. At first, the man was fine but during the interview, he broke down and started crying.

“As journalists, we are usually the first on scene and the people that are affected don’t have access to therapy – it’s almost a therapeutic session for them but as journalists, we are not trained, we are only trained to record the message and pass it on – we are not able to absorb the information like a psychologist would and place it on the side,” says Haffejee. Adding that, “we have to balance our own emotions. With our jobs as journalists we have a responsibility of telling a story in the most authentic and respectful [way] to the people whose story you are telling because they are entrusting you with their voice, trying to balance it with our own feelings is difficult, especially in a country where there is a lot of trauma”.

Haffejee says that as a journalist you never get used to the trauma that you are exposed to but “learn to manage the feelings and the best way is to show people with much respect that they deserve and to keep in mind that it is not your story, it is their story you are just the storyteller/vessel, never make it about yourself keep the people you are interviewing at the forefront of your mind”.

Panevina says that it is challenging being a woman in a male-dominated space, “the cameramen and videographers are usually men – there are more women journalists but not in mobile journalism”. The other challenge that Panevina faces is charging equipment, for example, one can be in the field with no internet connection or electricity for several hours. She recommends that one always has spare batteries and power banks.

Assise, who lived in South Africa for four years and now currently lives in Ethiopia, says that a challenge he faces is the cost of production and travelling. He says travelling throughout Africa is not cheap and media organisations are not willing to pay fair rates for journalists working in Africa. Assise says “media houses put more money to cover topics in Europe, and the United States America as compared to African countries”. He adds that media publications expect journalists to produce high volumes of content, “our industry works like a bakery, it wants you to produce more and more work”. He says it is important whilst producing content to think not only about the quantity but the quality. 

How to tell a compelling story using a mobile phone

Mobile journalists are competing with many different video-based platforms and Haffejee says that the best way to tell a story is to have interesting visuals and make sure that the basic technical aspects are correct such as audio, he says if people are unable to hear audio it diminishes the message that is being conveyed.

Haffejee says journalists find interesting angles on stories. “For example, with the Marikana massacre the story had been told by many different people/publications, so I wanted to look for a different aspect and I interviewed the photographers who were present to find out from them what happened from their perspective”.

Musavanhiri says that with filming a video the same journalistic principles apply. “It is not about the gadgets that we are using – it is about us as producers applying the same principles we use when we are producing stories using any other forms. With a mobile phone, the difference is I have a studio in my pocket – everything has been compressed in mobile but the journalistic principles do not change to have a compelling story”.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, many journalists had to use cellphones for the first time and discovered how powerful the devices are – not only as tools but as a source of video content directly to interviewees. It’s a great way to be as spontaneous and up-to-date as possible and these stories don’t have to go through the same usual long circle of validations as the regular interviews,” Panevina says.

Panevina adds that “being a mobile journalist means being flexible and fast-moving, always ready to switch to another story and not always having time to prepare thoroughly – at least not as much as for a regular interview using a crew. This is a state of mind”.

“Mobile journalism is not about interviewing only important high-level people – it’s about telling everyone’s story, whether it is a former minister or a fish vendor and being ready to tell it at all times,” says Panevina.

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