Once upon a time, you were a journalist if you adhered to a set of clear standards in your reporting and published the results in a recognized news outlet. You were an activist if you produced stories with an agenda to be published in an outlet that advocated for that issue. There were unscrupulous—or at least amateurish—people working on both sides of this very tribal divide, and the divide itself wasn’t alway as defined as people, especially journalists, would like to admit.
The decline of traditional media along with the rise of the Internet and mobile tools have blurred the line even further. For us in the community of citizen journalists and mobile reporters, the lack of a clear distinction between journalists and activists is an opportunity. We can use it to define a new, hybrid identity for ourselves.
Today advocacy organizations like Human Rights Watch publish top-flight investigative journalism—and audiences trust it to be accurate. Some of the best coverage from countries like Syria or China comes from people who would define themselves as activists and appears on social sites such as YouTube. In these countries and many others, the professional media is so tightly controlled by government that the only independent coverage available is produced by activists. Sure, some of these people have a very one-sided agenda and some carry guns. But, some are producing powerful, well-informed stories about important issues.
More progressive journalists and publications are moving toward a sort of middle ground. They embrace concepts with names like “community journalism” or “solutions journalism” that seek to balance the best of what solid reporting can bring with the need to advocate on important local issues. Another scenario involves journalists like Nicholas Kristof. He is using his experience as a journalist and The New York Times as a platform to advocate in the fight against human trafficking.
So what does all this mean for mobile reporters and activists? The online audience is huge and becoming ever more sophisticated in how it consumes news and information. It does not necessarily make a distinction between journalism and advocacy. It wants high production values––video and audio that are well-produced and reporting that is informative, accurate and transparent. It wants passion from credible producers about issues and reports that are smart and encourage people to get involved––especially on local issues overlooked by big media.
Journalism that is nonpartisan and without a call to action does not have the appeal it once did. But media activism that is poorly produced and offers little more than an ill-informed, sentimental snapshot of an issue doesn’t work either. This is the space we can inhabit. Have a look at India Unheard or Mobile Community Zimbabwe. Both are community platforms that provide media training and a strong platform for community-based journalism.
Really great opportunities always come with big challenges. High quality, informative content is hard to produce. It’s up to the community of activists and mobile journalists to set high standards for itself as we define our own, unique role in a rapidly evolving media landscape.