Reporting can sometimes feel like a hit-and-run. Go in, get the story, get home safe, then watch some awareness light up a corner of the human condition.
That dynamic changes, of course, if you live where you report your stories. It also changes if you grew up where you report, and can snag deeper and perhaps more interesting angles than typical disaster-tourist fare snatched from a conflict zone.
But that’s where reporting gets tricky. The compelling stories from regions with little to no Internet access—or Western journalists for that matter—often never make it to the front page. That’s why Radar, a year-old citizen journalism startup and United Kingdom-based media consultancy, is trying to put the power to produce and publish stories into the hands, or mobile phones, of the people already there to tell them.
Libby Powell, Radar’s co-founder and director, worked in Palestinian aid camps for nearly five years before she made the switch to journalism and met her other co-founder, Alice Klein. "We both very much felt like we were working for sectors that were entirely extractive," she said. "People would go out and gather stories, and bring them back somewhere safe and warm, and then they would be twisted and turned and fitted into an agenda and a template, and shared."
Powell described this process as a broken "feedback loop"—how sources in Western journalists’ stories often never saw those stories published, or weren’t able to contact the reporter for a follow-up. Then, inspired by use of mobile technology during the Arab Spring, and a reporting trip to post-civil-war Sri Lanka, Powell began wondering what mobile reporting might look like if it were to be shared with a larger network. With an initial Kickstarter campaign, Powell and Klein went about finding ways to train citizen journalists to report on their own stories from Kenya, Sierra Leone, and India.
Today, Radar has trained 250 citizen journalists, reporting on everything from elections in Sierra Leone to acid attacks on Dalit girls of India’s lowest caste. And Radar’s citizen journalists living in remote areas don’t need a laptop and high-speed Internet in order to communicate with publications like the Guardian and the New Internationalist. Instead, they use an SMS messaging gateway from 2005-era Nokia mobile phones that then connects them to Radar’s content management dashboard.
Radar’s argument is that these pieces offer a depth of insight that Western articles lack. One example Powell cites is an interview recently published in the New Internationalist about female genital mutilation, or FGM. Unlike many FGM stories that focus on what happens after FGM survivors leave their communities and get reconstructive surgery, this particular interview focused on the stories of one woman who belonged to a tribe that practices FGM, and why the practice persists.
The effects of mutilation extend to Radar’s citizen journalists, too. A third of Radar’s reporting force has physical disabilities, often the result of wartime amputations.
In the coming year, some of Radar’s training modules are set to launch autonomously within the communities they’ve made contact with abroad. Citizen journalists will be covering human trafficking, as well as some of the remotest parts of Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, the operation sustains itself financially as a five-person consultancy in London, helping non-governmental organizations source their reports.
Still, Powell acknowledges that it can often be difficult to get the attention of editors working in fast-paced, precarious newsrooms. "We’re at a really hesitant time in media where there’s a lot of competition, and a lot of cost-cutting," Powell said. "But if we can invest as young reporters, share our skills, and invest as editors to bridge access and quality, we’re not only going to get higher quality news, but we’re building a future generation of reporters that aren’t from the media schools."