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Every voice matters: My interview with the founder of the Citizen Journalism program

by Giada Santana

· Citizen Journalism,People of PA

On August 4th, two brutal explosions took place in the port of Beirut, Lebanon. Videos of it quickly became viral and informed the world about the catastrophe that left thousands of people homeless and triggered a national political crisis. The Lebanese people engaged in what is called citizen journalism: the amateurial and grassroot production of journalism. Nowadays, we are often used to rely on big international newspapers sources, but local ones are as crucial to stay informed: local media provide a space where citizens can learn, discern and debate. Citizen journalism is especially important to amplify the voices of people who are underrepresented, including migrants, who are also closer to the issues and conflicts being reported.

A comprehensive global report by the Ethical Journalism Network in 2017 found that “much of the media coverage of migration reflects political bias and is superficial, simplistic and often ill-informed”. This is why Maggie Quick founded the Citizen Journalism program within Paper Airplanes.

“I created Citizen Journalism because I believe in the power of storytelling and in the importance of not relying exclusively on Wester sources and outsiders - produced journalism. The Citizen Journalism program is a unique spot in journalism and journalism education. We wanted to make sure we were not only covering Western practices, methods and journalism ethics. We engaged with research on worldwide journalism and research on how journalism is perceived in different countries.” - she explained to me.

The program was conceived in 2016, when she was attending her BA in journalism. The curriculum was then created in 2017, in partnership with the Northeastern University.

“The course is based on the assumption that there is no need for a news room. You can tweet something… you can record a video or get an interview on your phone… Just get crucial information out there. Information is power!” - she told me, as I asked follow up questions.

The Citizen Journalism course is well structured and quite intense. Multiple teachers meet the students twice a week for an hour and a half. At the end of every semester students need to pass evaluations, but they are provided with feedback and grades on their assignments throughout the course, too. Besides frontal lectures, students benefit from guest speakers' events and have plenty of time for discussion, as well. Students particularly enjoyed the classroom setting, especially meeting weekly with their nine peers and teachers, the founder told me.

“Citizen Journalism covers the basics of the field: the foundational parts of a story, what are the key questions in an interview, the inverted pyramid, what’s the difference between a feature story and a profile story… We also have a section on interviewing best practices and what’s the difference when interviewing someone in person, versus over the phone or online, as they are different mediums... “ - she added.

Nevertheless, the curriculum was developed and changed several times since the beginning of the program.

“We revisit the curriculum every semester. We sit down with teachers and ask each other “What went well and where can we improve?”. For instance, we convened that students should have started writing earlier, jumping in faster in the field… We also increased the time for guest speakers, because we believe it is important to incorporate outside voices”.

However, creating such a program for conflict affected students has come with struggles.

“There is definitely a certain degree of hardship in creating a program from scratch. When working on the curriculum, we wanted to make sure that we were balancing each student’s situation with what we were hoping to get out of the course. All of the students come from very different backgrounds: some of them live at home, some in refugee camps, some just relocated to somewhere new… Many of them struggle to access stable technology or get a computer. The biggest challenge has been supporting students and all of those very different situations.”

However, many participants found in the Citizen Journalism program an opportunity to thrive. Especially because the citizen journalism program is a good opportunity for students who have learned English to further their English and creative writing skills! It also provides participants with skills they can enrich their CV with. The founder is still in contact with some of them:

“I’m friends with most of them on social media, which is a nice way to keep up. One of our students, Firas, came to class as a photojournalist. He was a super fast learner and always wrote compelling stories as he was living under siege in Syria. He moved to France, but continues to practise journalism and still produces content on Syria, using videos and photos his friends send him, while also covering stories on the country he is in now”.

When I asked Maggie what kind of students the program is more suitable for, she replied that Citizen Journalism is an inclusive and varied environment:

“I would say the main prerequisite is an intermediate English level, both in speaking and writing. Besides the English requirement, anyone can do it and everyone should do it! Our classes are made of a wide range of folks at different stages of their life, with different intentions… Some are driven to write about war, but others want to appreciate local art exhibits tying together their community and so much more…”

The Citizen Journalism remains a component of PA's teachings and curricula as we encourage our staff and students to find ways to share from their daily lives and experiences. As we continue to document the stories from Paper Airplanes’ community, we are engaging in new forms of citizen journalism to make issues of migration, refugeehood, and language learning closer to individuals from the Paper Airplanes community.

Do you think every voice matters? Check out our website for more information on how to become a tutor or support us by donating here.

About the author: Giada Santana

I am an Italian - Dominican student majoring in Philosophy, International Studies and Economics. However, I spent my final year abroad focusing on International Development at the University of Sussex. Here at Paper Airplanes I collect interviews, write for the blog and help with social media posts. When I'm not doing that, I love practising yoga, reading and creating playlists on Spotify.

The views and opinions represented in this post belong solely to the author of the blog post, and are not representative of the views and policies of Paper Airplanes and its staff members.

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