Sitting in my New York cubicle 15 years ago trying not to listen to Bill O'Reilly yell at his staff yet again, I was on my way to a promising career in network news. I'd worked at Court TV, CNN and Fox. I had visions of changing the world, one press conference at a time. And then I saw something that made me rethink news, and my career: citizen footage of the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999. These were not 30-second sound bytes, or glossy packages oversimplifying the situation. These were powerful testimonials by protesters about why they were there, and what was driving them to risk their lives to stay. Those protests were among the first to be covered by citizen journalists; it was in part a reaction to the fact that the mainstream media at that point had focused only on the violence of the protests rather than the message behind them.
This is something totally new, I remember thinking. Imagine if we in the mainstream could work collaboratively with people on the ground, thousands of them, telling stories together? If those who lived a story reported it, would it not make for a more complete narrative, a truly democratic news media? To me it seemed like the start of a media revolution and I quit my cubicle to be part of it.
A journey of change brought me to India where I started an organization called Video Volunteers that trains people from India's most marginalized communities to tell their own stories rather than wait for others to report them. We've built a rural reporting network that has reached 1.2 million people. We've created livelihood opportunities for 200 people who live below the poverty line. And we've worked with leading media outlets like Bloomberg, CNN-IBN and Al Jazeera, winning some of the best awards for innovation in the fields of media and social entrepreneurship. But far more can be done to bring marginalised voices to the mainstream.
There is a need for a rural network of journalists, because only about 2% of news on any given day was about rural issues. In a country where 70% of the people live in rural areas the lack of diversity in the voices that get represented on TV, on radio, and online continues to be alarming.
If in the U.S. it's white men who dominate the profession, in India few, if at all any, from marginalized communities like Dalits, tribals, and other-rights minorities enter the field.
This situation is made worse by the fact that many news houses are forced to cut down on the number of correspondents in order to keep costs low. In this case what news are you and I getting? Are we hearing what is happening in the lives of a majority of the citizens of India? Are we hearing at all, the stories from the most marginalized communities of the world?
In the decade and a half since the WTO protests, Internet, smartphones, flipcams, and other fabulous technologies have enabled countless citizen journalists across the world to cover wars, natural disasters as well as the daily trials of their lives. Projects being run by organizations like RADAR, CGnet Swara, GramVaani and WITNESS among others are excellent examples of the power of citizen journalism. In fact these models don't limit themselves to just reportage but believe that journalism can and must bring change.
In many ways it has eroded the sacrosanct position that journalists once had. The one most significant contribution of citizen journalism has been its ability to give space to events and opinions that may have previously been lost in the quick turnover of news cycles. Citizen journalists were the only people informing the world about the war in Syria and the Green Movement protests in Iran. They are also the first eyewitness accounts in emergency situations, and networks are quick to pick up these reports.
I thought these developments would drastically change how mainstream news media functions, mostly in terms of diversity of voices and stories carried. But citizen reportage operates in a limited sphere and despite a growing acceptance for it, it feels like mainstream media relegates citizen journalism to a realm of 'fluff pieces' to be treated with extreme caution. The key accusations leveled against this new form of journalism revolve around verification and the thin line it often treads between activism and journalism.
Granted that a situation where anyone and everyone can 'create news' may lead to a deafening cacophony. And admittedly many 'citizen reports' may be inaccurate themselves. My point however is that in all their messiness, big media houses need to engage with this mass of content in a more serious way, because in this collective media are the new narratives -- the new story lines, the new ideas -- of the future.
Large media organizations could play a vital role in training those who work with such organizations. They could help escalate issues; they could bring in factors like objectivity and veracity to citizen reports.
Journalism is changing. No longer can we afford to see the world through one network's lens. I would argue that we are better experiencing the world in three dimensions, and from a variety of points of view. And so, I want to encourage my erstwhile colleagues in their New York cubicles to stop changing things one press conference at a time, but rather one person at a time. I've seen over and over, one empowered citizen journalist can truly change their world, and in an increasingly intertwined globe, everyone else's. Who makes the news is as important as what the news is.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Video Volunteers, in conjunction with the launch of HuffPost India (December 8, 2014). Video Volunteers equips women and men from India's most marginalized communities with skills in video journalism and advocacy, enabling them to expose under-reported stories from their communities and take action to right the wrongs of poverty, injustice and inequality. For more information about Video Volunteers, visit here.