Effects of Digital Media Journalism Training in MENA
Executive Summary: The International Center for Journalists partnered with USAID to provide to journalists from the region of Middle East and North Africa a comprehensive online training program in multimedia reporting, several digital media “boot camps”, and a final trip to the US for networking and development of individual projects including seed funding to further the top five proposals of selected journalists. The stated purpose was to harness the power of journalist to expose issues relevant to the nation and increase government accountability in the wake of the Arab Spring. In the year 2012, several of the top five journalists were from the Kingdom of Morocco. While the program succeeded in training 100 journalists per year in its four-year history, it could not fully address the structural issues that remain that prohibit full access to independent, investigative journalism in Morocco.
- Online training and on site boot camps prove to be successful methods of teaching digital and multimedia skills for journalism
- Competition for seed funding produces successful multimedia and online news projects
- Program does not address issues of press suppression through political means or issues of accessibility through lack of internet
Organization & Actors
A. The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) - creates programs that “empower journalists and engage citizens with new technologies and best practices” (“About ICFJ”). In its thirty-two-year existence, ICFJ has worked with close to 100,000 journalists, both professional and citizens, from 180 years. They have pioneered both international journalism fellowships, called the Knight International Journalism Fellowship, designed to foster a culture of news innovation and ICFJ Anywhere, an online source for journalism education available worldwide.
B. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) - is the lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential. The project was funded through the Office of Middle East Programs (USAID/OMEP).
C.National journalists - a group of over sixty journalists each year from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, citizens re-examined their relationship with government and information access in their societies. USAID remarked, “Activists and bloggers have played a critical role in determining the outcome of the Arab Awakening” (“Post Arab Spring”).From this reflection, an interest emerged in promoting public service journalism as an effective tool to increase political participation and further democracies in authoritarian and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. By harnessing the power of journalism, a new generation of journalists could demand transparency and accountability from their governments. The ICFJ program “Building a Digital Gateway for Better Lives” addresses a prevalent lack of opportunities for journalists to develop their multimedia and digital skills, essential to the future of their field. ICFJ and USAID specifically worked on “empowering young people to better tell their story” and targeted a group with the potential to “promote transparency and accountability around the region” (“Post Arab spring”).
Press freedom within Morocco specifically is low. Freedom House rates the press status as “not free” and gives Morocco a score of 66 with 0 representing best, 100 representing worst (Freedom House, “Country Report | Morocco). The Monarchy controls all domestic broadcast journalism and holds the “authority to appoint the heads of all public radio and television channels” (Ibid). Political persecution of journalists who question or expose problems within King Mohamed VI’s regime is high, and the constitution “prohibits criticism of the monarchy and Islam . . . effectively bar[ring] independent coverage of certain taboo subjects including the royal family and the status of Western Sahara” (Ibid). According to Freedom House, “self censorship is widespread” and journalists have incentives to avoid controversial topics (Ibid). Alternative viewpoints are confined to online media and foreign broadcasts, which are not easily accessible to the population. A proposed draft of press code mandates the registration of online journalists to reassert government control over all press, not just print media.
For the large part, there is a digital divide between Morocco’s urban and rural areas. Internet is not readily accessible in Morocco for the majority of the population, and those who do have access tend to be more educated, more well informed politically, and more wealthy (Freedom House, Freedom Net). Increasing digital journalism and multi media training for young journalists anticipates a substantial growth in internet access – a priority of the monarchy – in the near future, but for now, this training does not present an immediate improvement in information access and government accountability.
The International Center for Journalists’ program that awards honors and financial supports to five journalists and citizen journalists from throughout the Middle East and North Africa - including Morocco –has existed for several years. The awards are based on excellence in digital technology, and in 2012, they were projects covering issues of children’s rights, sexual harassment, pollution, and landmines in the journalists’ respective nations (Bernard).
Each year of the program, more than sixty journalists were chosen from around four hundred applicants to complete six weeks of online training in Arabic “in the use of digital tools for public service journalism” (Butler). The training focused on:
- How to identify and adapt emerging technologies
- Twitter basics
- Understanding and using social media
- Reporting through crowdsourcing
- Understanding and using mobile, SMS and location-aware services
- Visual storytelling techniques
- Mapping and mashups for beginners
- Writing for the real-time Web
- Online video production (Tariq, “Public Service Journalism for Arab-Speaking Journalists)
Following the six-week program, journalists proposed projects they would like to pursue. From over sixty proposals, twenty-five journalists were selected to attend a series of two weeklong training “boot camps” in the region. These twenty-five were those who were “most active in the course and who proposed the most promising project ideas” (Butler).At these boot camps, they participated in intensive workshops and individual mentoring with experts in technology, multimedia and online marketing. Topics included using social media to shooting and editing photos and video, from computer-assisted reporting to building news websites, and from media ethics to trends in mobile journalism.” (Butler) Once they returned to their home country, ICFJ experts continued to mentor the participants for three months. Five winners are chosen each year to receive seed funding to further their public service journalism, and the top winners are flown to the U.S. for a two week study tour tailored to the journalist’s interest, including “visits to media outlets, nonprofits, and government agencies.” (Bernard). After four years of this program, the most successful reporters from all four years gathered in 2014 to collaborate on cross-border reporting projects. Each team of journalists represented at least three different nationalities (Butler and Bernard).
ICFJ affiliated experts Andy Carvin, Frank Folwell, and Sherry Ricchiardi were on hand several of the years to act as mentors and directors of the boot camps. Carvin, National Public Radio’s senior strategist for social media, observed “the group that came together here is so eager to experiment with different tools using traditional journalism in combination with social media and digital production tools.” He believes “they’ll serve as really excellent pioneers for their countries” (Butler). Ricchiardi, a professor at the Indiana School of Journalism, taught courses on ethics in a digital age. She found that journalists from the program were “keenly aware of covering marginalized populations and giving voice to the voiceless in their societies . . . their passion for their work was refreshing and inspiring” (Tariq, “Multimedia Boot Camp Empowers Arab Journalists to Serve Their Societies). Award-winning U.S. photojournalist Frank Folwell led workshops on photo editing, hoping to improve the multimedia skills of the collected journalists. He was impressed by the camaraderie of the community built across the gathered journalists, their passion for learning, and said that this enthusiasm continued as he got “emails, Facebook postings, and messages, which shows a continued interest and desire to improve their photo techniques as they move deeper into their individual projects” (Ibid).
From the perspective of the participants, the program was a success. Mohammed Al-Hakimi, a journalist from Yemen, was selected as one of the top five participants in 2012 and worked on a project addressing the environmental impacts of plastic bags in his country(Bernard). Al-Hakimi explained that before ICFJ’s intensive training, his computer skills were limited to word-processing, email, and a blog. Training in data-intensive reporting, video editing, and social media, significantly increased his technological expertise, and courses in ethics, investigative interviewing, and story telling techniques helped him develop a more comprehensive approach to reporting (Bernard). A journalist from Morocco, Mohamed Akinou, was awarded fourth place in Al-Hakimi’s year, and his training enabled him to uses maps, images, and video to expose the situation of landmine victims in the Moroccan occupied Western Sahara (Bernard). Moroccan Mohamed Amarochan was able to hone his initial idea to cover environmental degradation in Tangier into a website that accepted citizen generated suggestions for the local government to address. In addition to tailoring his vision into a practical project, he had a “golden opportunity to exchange experiences” with the other journalists gathered for the boot camp (Butler).
In the same year’s class, Moroccan journalist and blogger Aida Bouya took first place for her project “Single Mothers and Children without an Identity.” Her project harnessed digital audio, photography, and video to “humanize Moroccans who are denied legal status because their parents were unmarried” (Bernard). Bouya explained the impetus behind her project, saying “it is the duty of the media to highlight these marginalized groups who suffer in silence” (Bernard). Her website, Children of Whom, is no longer maintained but Bouya keeps her blog and Twitter updated. She posted an article in 2015 detailing the evolution of media over time, and the importance professional journalism holds in society. She defines a “digital journalist” as “a person who provides content to serve readers online . . . and the active and interactive content combine text, image, and sound” (Bouya). She later further defines a digital journalist as one who can create “fixed images, graphs, maps, videos, interactive polls” to interact with the public. (Bouya) Her experience training with ICFJ’s program in Jordan alongside fellow pioneers in her field and her trip to the US to explore digital journalism more has clearly left a mark on her understanding of successful journalism.
ICFJ and USAID’s program to instruct and improve journalists from around the Middle East and North Africa met its self-proclaimed goals to educate young professional and citizen journalists in digital strategies to better advocate for and inform their national audience. Specifically Moroccan journalists benefitted in the 2012 program, and they worked on projects to expose human rights violations and inequity in society. However the digital training only increased the specialization and marginalization of the already removed independent media. With a government-controlled press, significantly restrictive press codes,and low rates of literacy and Internet accessibility, Morocco is not yet equipped to harness the power of digital media.
Going forward, ICFJ and USAID should work to reproduce their evident success in training budding professional and citizen journalists in the multimedia and digital aspects of journalism in the twenty-first century. They noticed an opportunity harness the powerful anti-corruption and democratic sentiments of the Arab Spring and craft the beginnings of an independent press intent on exposing all truth, no matter the regime, and doing so in a technologically relevant way that captured the newly formed online audience in many countries. However, there remains several issues that, if addressed, could further these aims to a greater degree in Morocco:
- Increase the accessibility of internet, whether through mobile phones or community internet centers, to rural areas underserved by current media outlets to allow for access to the digital media content produced through this program
- Advocate for more fair press code which includes allowing online journalists to stay outside of government regulation
- Develop a nation specific program that can replicatethe success of such a program with more than several journalists each yearper country
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