During Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election skirmishes, a team of IT specialists and social activists developed an open-source software application called Ushahidi. The website (App) relied on members of the public from various parts of Kenya to collect, record and transmit eyewitness accounts of the events around them and the violence as it unfolded using text messages and Google maps.
Ushahidi became one of the biggest information crowdsourcing success stories in Kenya. It employed simple tech (SMS and email), citizen journalism, activism, and geospatial evidence to record, transmit, and archive one of the most challenging events in the history of modern Kenya. All the information was cleaned and then stored on the Ushahidi website. As a result, journalists, human rights groups, and election observers often refer to it in their work.
Ushahidi had two main advantages over local mainstream media houses. First, since its information was crowdsourced, it had unlimited reach when roads were blocked, and travel was dangerous and nearly impossible. Secondly, Ushahidi received raw and unfiltered data, unlike media houses that at the time were being accused by the public of suppressing certain information.
A few years after the success of Ushahidi, The Standard Media Group in Kenya added a section to their news website. They called it U-report. (Basic wordplay- You report). It was an open invitation to Kenyans all over the world to have their stories published. The section still exists on the website, and it runs all sorts of stories (politics, relationships, education, business, political analysis etc.) written by citizens.
With Ushahidi’s success in crowdsourcing information and mainstream media houses recognising the power of citizen journalism, Kenya walked into a new era of audience participation in the journalism industry. The public (audience) ceased to be the inactive participants of the 1990s, who occasionally sent letters to the editors or called in to give a tip about a story or received T-Shirts when their favourite TV station showed up at their local town for a promotional event.
Instead, the audience has become part of the newsgathering, product testing and content distribution. Local media audiences have grown so powerful (thanks to the changing social and business dynamics) that they can force a media product off-air/ off the shelves or even lead to the termination of the contract of a journalist.
Audience involvement has been remarkable locally. Due to access to new technology that makes capturing, recording and sharing information easy, audiences in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and even Somalia have moved from being mere consumers of content to active collaborators in the process of news gathering and content creation.
Citizen journalism (where members of the public generate and share (raw) news on blogs, personal websites, social media platforms) has introduced a new dimension in the news business.
Today, news reporters and legacy media rely on social media, personal blogs, and personal websites (and are part of social media groups and other closed digital community groups) to get scoops, breaking news and street clarification on developing stories. Consequently, the audience has become an informal but integral part of the newsgathering and verification process. Although it is discouraged, journalists use social media sources to build, confirm and stay on top of the news.
Periods of turmoil, like Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence or the Arab Spring anti-government protests in the early 2010s, or more recently the political protests in Uganda, Sudan and Tanzania, offer the perfect case studies of media audience contribution to the news cycle.
Informal audience and media collaboration
At the height of the 2018-2019 protests against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir. It was clear that the protests by thousands of young men and women were different. The demonstrators were not going to be beaten off the streets as in the past. When the government made this connection, it turned on journalists, starting with foreign correspondents.
Two Al Jazeera journalists had their in-country accreditation withdrawn, work permits for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya TV and Turkey’s news agency Anadolu staff got withdrawn. In mid-January 2019, Sudanese security officers arrested about 20 local and international journalists from various outlets – but later released them.
The country had a media blackout for days. Meanwhile, the government heavily censored the content, and the security forces were always ready to threaten and intimidate journalists with warrants of arrests. At one point, Bashir’s government banned the publication of news and editorials.
Despite the restrictions, the men and women in the streets narrated to the world what was happening in Sudan. As they went out protesting, they took photos and recorded running battles with the police, the deaths of protestors, the speeches by protest leaders, and the random acts of kindness amidst the violence.
They shared the images in WhatsApp groups, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, personal blogs, and more importantly, they provided mainstream local and international media outlets with the raw footage. A good amount of the material used by BBC News to cover the events in Sudan (when the government made it difficult for foreign correspondents to operate) came from civilians on the streets. The audience informally collaborated with BBC News.
Audience as a product development sounding board
Nowadays, companies directly turn to their audiences for product feedback. It is not uncommon for new publications or new TV programs to be tested several times by the viewers or readers (a process that could take months) before the company launches the product to the broader public.
There is no easier way to get product reviews than by going directly to the audience. A survey that would have taken the product development or research & development team months to conduct can these days be done within one news hour.
Market surveys being run during news hour or a product review running on the Twitter handle of a media house or Facebook page have become common. A media company can have real-time feedback on various products without going through a research or marketing firm for this information. And, based on the information that they obtain from the in-house study, they can rework the product in the ways that they see fit.
New media platforms, especially digital platforms, have taken participatory audience relationships to a new level. For example, bloggers and Vloggers (including those that work for mainstream media outlets) have a direct relationship with their audiences. They write revealing personal stories, take their audiences on journeys with them as part of their content. Some of these can be done in real-time, such as those that stream their journeys or food experiences or music festival experiences.
Mainstream journalists have not been left behind either. A KTN news anchor and show host (Mike Gitonga) is known for his bike riding experiences (Mike on the Bike) just as much he is known for his TV work. Several female newsreaders use their social media platforms, especially Instagram, to bring their TV audience into their personal life stories.
While these may look like individual projects, journalists have learned that their interactions with their audiences off-screen or off-air are vital in growing that audience for themselves and the media companies. Radio and TV stations are very keen on hiring individuals with strong social media brands outside the station to boost the audience interaction rate.
Whether it is about societal concerns like Covid-19 sensitisation, crisis reporting, or commercial and business purposes, participatory audience engagement in mainstream and new media platforms works for all parties involved.
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