By Patrick Egwu

A media hub is changing Nigeria’s media landscape. Since its launch in 2017 by the Sahara Reporters Media Foundation, the Civic Media Lab — a media innovation organisation in Nigeria, is serving as a centre for innovation and journalism development with four focus areas — media, democracy, design, and technology.

During its launch, the nonprofit funded by the MacArthur Foundation, said: “The Civic Media Lab will act as an interdisciplinary research laboratory devoted to projects ranging from technology, multimedia to science, arts and design. Individuals with academic backgrounds and qualifications from different fields will converge with the common goal of intensive research on different topics with the aim of producing groundbreaking and innovative results that can improve the digital state of the country and put Nigeria on the world map”.

The Lab blends advocacy and activism as well as civic technology into journalism to deepen democracy and ensure better governance.

Investigative reporting on different sectors in Nigeria with the aim of holding power to account, exposing malpractices and building public trust is the work carried out by the Lab. Back in May, for instance, the Lab did a six-part investigation to show how a lack of funding is hindering research institutes from performing optimally amid the fight to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We do some research, conduct investigative journalism training, fund newsrooms and also do some investigative stories on our own based on what interests we have,” said Akinfolarin Oluwaseun, director of the Lab. “We believe that if there is sufficient research and support, journalists and newsrooms can be able to do their work better.”

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At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, the Lab called for transparency in the testing figures released by Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control [NCDC].

Media training and workshops are organised for journalists from different newsrooms in the country. The journalists are trained on the necessary skills and new digital tools they need to do investigative reports and data-based journalism about governance and policymaking issues in the country with the aim of enhancing the government’s accountability and responsiveness to issues affecting the public. Specifically, the Lab provides support to journalists who otherwise would not have an opportunity to expand their skill sets or have a platform to publish their work.

Additionally, the Lab provides support to strengthen the Nigerian media by providing the relevant data and tech force. Oluwaseun says the organisation provides a platform for collaboration between journalists and civil advocates to tell stories that would ensure social change in different sectors of the country.

A collaborative report on the state of education facilities in the country published by the Lab in collaboration with other media organisations showed that “most of the infrastructure projects executed become useless as a result of the lack of maintenance; classrooms were not enough in many schools, leading to overpopulation and poor teaching-learning experience; and that many schools built in recent years lacked proper fencing and adequate security measures, thereby exposing pupils and students in basic schools to danger.”

Recently, the Lab invited journalists to apply for a reporting fellowship in Nigeria’s criminal justice system. The fellowship includes virtual training, mentoring sessions and collaboration to produce stories that promote accountability and transparency in the judiciary.

Selected fellows will investigate and break stories which expose corruption and accountability issues in the criminal justice system, highlight causative factors and propose solutions,” according to the call for applications.

Oluwasuen says one of the things the Lab does is look for an area that is underreported and conduct fellowships or programmes as a way of developing and building the skills of journalists.

“The idea is that newsrooms normally have certain biases for what they report in certain areas and some of these areas are very specialised. The technical challenges of the judiciary are underreported, so the reason for the fellowship is that we want to find out the problem with the Nigerian judiciary and we know that journalists would need the support of experts,” he said adding that experts are invited to give journalists insight into the foundational problems in the judiciary. “If these problems are not properly reported, then the policy implementation won’t take place, so we support small newsrooms as well as bigger newsrooms through our training to investigate these issues.”

Student journalists are at the heart of the activities of the Lab as data journalism training is specifically organised for them. Oluwaseun adds; “We support upcoming journalists through training for student journalists through projects that we continue to engage them on a continuous basis. They are the ones that we use for our report program because it is less tasking. Basically, it’s the reporting that is our impact and that is where we try to get our focus around.”

The activities of the Lab are creating an impact in Nigeria’s media landscape, according to Oluwaseun by “building relationships with newsrooms to do investigative reporting. We were able to help them do investigations successfully in Nigeria.”

However, there are challenges. Working as a journalist or running a media innovation hub doesn’t come easy. Attacks on the media by the government and funding issues make their work difficult, with Reporters Without Borders saying that Nigeria is one of the most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists.

“Doing investigative journalism in Nigeria is always a bit difficult,” Oluwaseun says. “They are always targeting us and the journalists we work with. That is really a big challenge for us and we would like a situation where the condition of work is conducive.”

Also, certain competencies especially in data journalism, forensic investigation and geospatial analysis are lacking “because the culture [of data journalism] is problematic in the country. Most data-backed reports take time to get the data, clean it and use it. So, it’s really expensive and sometimes difficult to get people to understand that these things can be very demanding,” he noted.

But Oluwaseun says the fact remains that so many good stories are buried inside datasets.

Going forward, the Lab wants to change focus. “We want it to move to become an academic media centre where we have some sort of continuous support that gives us the latitude to focus our energy on very narrow areas over a long period of time. For instance, we can focus our energy on audience analysis where we can get postdoctoral students from universities to focus and do research and thematic analysis on certain areas,” he said.

Oluwaseun says the outcome of such activities will help newsrooms in Nigeria to focus on these problematic areas and do investigative stories for impact and change.

“That way, journalists are better equipped in probing various government sectors and that way we can improve on the quality of journalism. So that’s where we hope to get to over the next couple of years,” he says.

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Reporting supported by a micro-grant from Jamlab



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