Moving beyond tokenism to amplify citizen voices in the news

Two journalists are assigned to report on the aftermath of devastating floods. Both receive instructions from their editors to tell the story from the community’s perspective. However, their approaches to this directive vary significantly.

One journalist adopts a cursory approach. He prioritises interviews with government officials and local civil society groups, believing this will adequately summarise the community’s viewpoint. With limited time remaining, he hastily gathers brief snippets of dialogue from a few affected locals. The exchanges are rushed, capturing some sentiments, but not exploring the individuals’ experiences or the broader impact on their lives.

The second journalist takes a markedly different route. Recognising the story’s complexity and depth, he invests time in listening to community members. He prioritises understanding the experiences of a diverse group of people within the affected area, engaging with residents from various backgrounds, age groups and occupations. These conversations are unhurried, allowing for in-depth discussions that reveal the nuanced layers of the community’s emotions and challenges in the aftermath of the floods.

The challenge for journalists in this context is substantial. Representing diverse perspectives while meeting the demands of rapid news production is a delicate balancing act. There’s a temptation to resort to tokenistic gestures, gathering superficial quotes or opinions to fulfil a perceived diversity quota. This often results in excluding the voices of those whose experiences, struggles and resilience provide depth and authenticity to the news.

Many media outlets focus heavily on the voices of officialdom or easily accessible sources, inadvertently excluding a spectrum of everyday voices that constitute the heart of communities. This can lead to a narrow representation of opinions and experiences in news stories. It fails to capture the multifaceted realities of diverse communities and increases the gap between the media and the lived experiences of the people it aims to represent.

A recent report by ACME on Ugandan media coverage of public affairs revealed a disturbing trend: only 13 percent of news sources were ordinary people quoted in their individual capacity. This stands in stark contrast to the dominance of government officials, who accounted for over half of all voices and opinions cited. This lopsided representation raises serious concerns about the media’s role in reflecting the diversity of perspectives within Ugandan society.

The media has the power to amplify the voices of ordinary people, reflecting the diversity of experiences and perspectives within society. When the media accurately portrays the realities of communities, it validates and recognises individuals whose stories might otherwise be silenced. This recognition sparks inclusive debates that encompass a wide range of viewpoints, enriching societal discourse.

Accurate media representation holds even greater significance for those historically marginalised in news coverage. Seeing their stories reflected in the media validates their existence and amplifies their voices. This representation serves as a powerful tool to challenge stereotypes, amplify unheard voices, and foster greater societal understanding.

Journalists hold the key to ensuring inclusive and meaningful representation in their reporting. Here are some tips on what they can do:

1. Avoid simply fulfilling a quota; instead, genuinely commit to storytelling from the perspective of ordinary citizens. Develop a sincere interest in their experiences, struggles and successes. Prioritise showcasing their narratives with depth and genuineness, ensuring their voices are not merely included but amplified.

2. Invest time to seek out a variety of sources that represent the richness and diversity of the population you are reporting on. Engage with individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, including different ages, ethnicities, socioeconomic groups, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities. This will help capture a comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand and present a more balanced and accurate portrayal of the community.

3. Shift your sourcing strategy to focus on the lived experiences, emotions and complexities behind a story. Go beyond simply collecting voices to genuinely humanise the narrative. Incorporate sources that provide a comprehensive and empathetic portrayal of the human experience.

4. Include perspectives and voices that often go unnoticed or those that are silenced. Connect with individuals whose stories may not typically make headlines. Integrating these underrepresented voices not only broadens your understanding but also infuses your storytelling with depth and authenticity.

5. Approach your work with a genuine sense of curiosity and eagerness to learn about the people you cover. Seek out new perspectives, ask probing questions and explore the nuances of each story. By maintaining a curious mindset, you journalists can uncover hidden truths and shed light on issues that might otherwise remain overlooked.

ACME Mwalimu

The African Centre for Media Excellence's training unit, known as ACME Mwalimu, scours news platforms and online resources to curate the best training tips and resources for journalists and media organisations, empowering them to become impactful contributors to public debate and development. If you have a training tip or question, you can reach out to ACME Mwalimu at training[at]acme-ug.org.

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