Citizen Journalists Get Media Savvy

Published May 18, 2015 in Episode 4

It’s a hot afternoon in the city state of Singapore and the first day of a citizen journalism training hosted by news broadcaster Radio Free Asia, human rights organization Article 19, and pro-democracy party Việt Tân.

The trainer, Lê Quang, is distributing Android phones to a group of about 20 bloggers and activists. They’ve arrived here from Việt Nam just a day before to learn about media production.

“I am a social activist that work to empower women, especially single mothers in Việt Nam. We have an enterprise to help train single mothers with vocational training and other soft skills to be independent and confident in themselves to raise their children,” says Hạ Vũ from Hà Nội.

Her simple desire to change the lot of single mothers and their families eventually led her to an even bigger, more daunting cause.

Having worked with many official non-governmental organizations in Việt Nam, she sees very little impact and feels democracy promotion can better empower people for greater change. “That’s the reason why I care about democratic activities and the reason why I want to participate in this training,” says Vũ.

The three-day training focused on one particular tool, StoryMaker, which has just launched in Vietnamese. Conceived to improve the capacity of citizen journalists in conflict zones, StoryMaker is an open source app for Android phone that puts production tools all into one location with storytelling lessons, such as how to ask interview questions or how to frame a subject, built in.

A participant of the citizen media training reviews the lessons on his smartphone.   (Photo: Loa)

A participant of the citizen media training reviews the lessons on his smartphone. (Photo: Loa)

Steve Wyshywaniuk, product director for StoryMaker, notes that people were interested in understanding what journalism can do in restrictive spaces and all the various ways to be a journalist while considering the threats from a security standpoint.

“StoryMaker should not be just a production tool, the way that Instagram or Soundcloud is,” Steve Wyshywaniuk, product director for the app, notes. “Our educational approach is to present media creation information and tips at the moment that they need it.”

StoryMaker has been implemented successfully in hot spots around the globe like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq and Burundi -- places with challenging media environments.

At StoryMaker headquarters in the U.S. city of Portland, Wyshywaniuk and his developers put their experiences from training into further fine-tuning the app, placing a big emphasis on security and storytelling.

Wyshywaniuk added, “not everyone who comes to a StoryMaker training is familiar with mobile production tools or is actually familiar with citizen journalism either.”

The class training in Singapore consists of brought together young student activists, experienced human rights campaigners, and even a former state journalist. And yet the information shared was grounded in the basics.

For the class of aspiring citizen journalists attending the training in Singapore, that means trainers sometimes need to go back to basics.

As the class reviews the attempts at shooting video on their newly assigned Android phones, it’s clear that someone held used the camera upside down.

Vũ says she’s got lots of stories to tell, but her challenges range from the technical to the political. For her, technical things like how to make a video, how to write an article, is most important yet difficult.

“There is many difficulties, especially with government forbidding democracy [promotion] work for people from low positions in Việt Nam,” Vũ added.

Still, she says she believes that citizen journalists know something that state media, or even professional foreign journalists don’t.

In fact, it’s that unique perspective from the ground, that established media organizations are seeking out.

Khanh Nguyễn, a trainer from Radio Free Asia, says citizen journalists are essential to RFA's reporting. (Photo: Loa)

Khanh Nguyễn, a trainer from Radio Free Asia, says citizen journalists are essential to RFA's reporting. (Photo: Loa)

Khanh Nguyễn, director of the Vietnamese Services for Radio Free Asia, says he hopes the Singapore training will create citizen journalists like the ones who are currently contributing to RFA’s programs in Việt Nam who often have to work in secret to file reports.

Nguyễn says he understands the obstacles people like Vũ face as she works to masters the basics of storytelling and contribute stories, whether it's for RFA or for other outlets.

“Don’t forget that journalists in Việt Nam work under pressure from the government. RFA has not been accepted as a radio station, as a news media outlet in Việt Nam,” says Nguyễn. Working under such restrictions, however, RFA feels the citizen journalists’ work is marvelous.

For Vũ, she thinks she still has a long way to go deliver a report that could be called marvelous. But if she could tell a story today, this would be her story:

“I want to tell the story of single mothers in Việt Nam, and how difficult it is living with very little support from the communist government. And from that, I hope that we can have some advice from outsiders, so that we can help them to have a better life in the future.”

It’s a story she’ll now be able to produce on StoryMaker, in Việt Nam.