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Training Citizen Investigative Journalists in Jamaica

Citizen Muckrakers: Graduates of the investigative journalism workshop, along with their family and supporters, at graduation. Credit: All photos used with permission from NIA

Investigative journalism in Jamaica — and across the Caribbean — has never truly thrived. That’s due to several factors, including a lack of resources as well as a cautious and unsupportive media environment. But a recent training project — a collaboration by the USAID-funded COMET II community development program, the anti-corruption lobby National Integrity Action (NIA) and the independent Global Reporters for the Caribbean — aimed at tackling the issue by empowering ordinary citizens to hold authorities accountable.

Global Voices talked to the program’s coordinator, journalist Kate Chappell, COMET II’s Ian McKnight and NIA’s Omar Lewis, about the project, its successes and challenges and the potential impact on Jamaican journalism.

What was the purpose of the training and what did you hope to achieve?

Program coordinator journalist Kate Chappell

Kate Chappell (KC): We wanted to give (participants) the basic skills — researching, interviewing, filling out access to information requests and writing news articles. We hoped they would all be able to continue to do the same work in their communities. In a larger sense, we wanted to give a voice to those who would otherwise have none.

Omar Lewis (OL): NIA aims to improve the capacity of everyday citizens to play an active role in collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information — and being directly involved in governance matters by holding their elected representatives, service providers and others in positions of influence and authority to account. NIA’s mission is to build a social movement for change — an empowered and informed citizenry actively participating in Jamaica’s system of governance.

Ian McKnight: (IMK): COMET II has a mandate to work at community level to ensure that ultimately, communities are safe and secure places for their members. Community journalists are seen as key to helping to preserve a culture of lawfulness. They will identify issues facing communities and propose strategies to solve them. They will utilize traditional and non-traditional means so to do. They must investigate what’s behind the stories to discover who should be held accountable.

How is this different from the average journalism workshop?

NIA’s Civil Society Coordinator, Omar Lewis

OL: These community residents had little or no formal media training. Participants received a weekend of training in community investigative journalism and were then placed in groups with a mentor (a professional journalist) who helped them create investigative stories based on selected activities within their own communities over a three to four-month period. We hope that with this kind of “on the job” training, the trainees’ interest will be further piqued and they will continue the learning process.

KC: We took a long-term view. We didn’t want to just have a weekend of training which would then not be put into practice. We had two full days of lectures and special presenters. The Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency talked about corruption in local government.

Independent journalist Zahra Burton (host of 18 Degrees North, former Bloomberg News reporter and founder of Global Reporters for the Caribbean) talked about “how to dig in,” determine sources and find information.

Journalist Zahra Burton

Broadcast journalist Dennis Brooks talked about social media and journalism. Civil society activist Jeanette Calder talked about accountability. There was a session on climate change and disaster preparedness, and another on training in television and video production using your phone. Each group had a story they were to research, for which they filed an access to information request. The mentors walked the group members through every step of the way in assembling an investigative piece.

IMK: Our journalists do not belong to a commercial entity. They are not answerable to any group except their community. They are not voices of the politicians. Ultimately, their task is to transform the community through their craft. This training built on the basic skills of journalism and was afforded only to those who had previously done work and exhibited aptitude.

What was the profile of your trainees? Did they focus on both urban and rural issues?

KC: Twenty-seven people completed the training. They ranged in age from their early 20s to their 40s. They came from both urban and rural areas, as did the stories we researched.

OL: They were drawn from groups trained by NIA and COMET II in social auditing or as integrity ambassadors.

What kind of issues did they cover?

KC: They produced ten reports on topics such as the impact of dredging Kingston Harbor on the environment and on local fishermen (this article was published in the Jamaica Observer); a lively radio discussion with political representatives and health officials on the poor state of roads in a rural community, for which residents blamed a teenager’s death from an asthma attack; the absence and/or lack of training of domestic violence coordinators at police stations based on the experiences of women who had reported to police stations (to be aired on the community radio station Roots FM); the problem of over-fishing in Montego Bay; and a noisy church in breach of regulations and making residents’ lives a misery. One critical topic — to be published in the Western Mirror — is on residents’ reluctance to report crime in area around Montego Bay due to lack of trust and fear.

How would you define investigative journalism and what it means in Jamaica today? Where would you like to see it heading?

KC: I’m sure there are formal definitions out there, but through this training, and in the Jamaican context, this is what I have come up with: Investigative journalism is both a tool and a skill set that enables citizens (both professional journalists and the untrained) to hold authorities to account. It enables people to look back at promises made and to see if they have been kept. It sheds light on those who do not use their positions of authority properly. Ideally, it can be a way of shaking out the corruption that accumulates among those in power.

I would like to see journalists in Jamaica empowered to do more investigative journalism. This means they need more resources and need to be supported by the community. Political partisanship often prohibits quality investigative journalism in this country and that needs to stop. People need to realize that a healthy, free and fair press is essential to a well-functioning democracy in which all citizens have equal representation. Investigative journalism is extremely expensive and time-consuming, so I would like to see a dedicated fund for such an endeavor, perhaps not initiated by the government, but by the private sector or citizens.

OL: In essence, I see investigative journalism as based on evidence-based research, whereby we call the powerful to account and expose corruption, and protect and preserve our democracy.

IMK: Journalists who are prepared to go beyond the surface and resist the temptation to just produce and present a piece just for the sensation of it. It will contribute to development. Today, we need people who are not afraid to call out authorities and say who is responsible.

What was one of the major challenges you faced with this project?

KC: Participants did not understand how much work this would be. They told us so, many times, and in plain language. This is an oversight on our part and it is also a function of the fact that we are used to the endless time it takes to produce an investigative piece. We took it for granted, so we did not relay this to participants. They were struggling to meet our demands as well as keep up with their lives — school, work, families, etc. We have learned this lesson for next time.

Did you succeed in your goals? Or is it too early to say?

Trainer Burton presents a certificate to a community journalist at the graduation ceremony

OL: The training and post-training activities so far have been successful. However, we will not be able to consider the entire process a success until we see how the community journalists perform going forward. Will they continuously seek to use their new craft? Or will they disappear into oblivion, failing to add to the voices of those demanding change in Jamaica?

KC: I feel we exceeded our goals. We produced high-quality pieces that met all our objectives: Holding authorities to account, providing meaningful information and shedding light on an issue that would probably otherwise not receive any attention. We also empowered citizens to look at their communities in a new way, to feel they can ask questions, get answers and demand action. In at least one case, a story prompted a response from a member of parliament who asked to participate in a radio show and promised to follow up and take action on a long-standing issue in the community.

IMK: To have the majority of the pieces already published and broadcast is success on its own. Communities are already reaping some of the benefits. We will continue to train journalists in this specialist skill. We will support them to do their jobs well.

This post first appeared on the Global Voices website and is reproduced here with permission.

Emma Lewis is a London-born, Oxford graduate who has lived in Kingston for 29 years. She is a writer, blogger and social media activist. She has a passion for human rights, the environment, climate change and issues affecting small island developing states. 

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