Journalists work their MOJO

Countering the Sparrow narrative just a cell phone away

Journalists are turning to smartphones, selfie sticks and social media to tell their stories in more engaging ways, and to get information out there, fast. From #FeesMustFall videos that went viral last year, to those on the twittersphere that bring racists to book; mobile journalism offers reports mobility and speed. Leading the wave of mobile reporting is Yusuf Omar, who recently reported from one of Durban’s busiest beachfronts a few days before #PennySparrow hit our social media shores; he insists, a MOJO’s next story is “just a cell phone’s reach away”

“What compelled you to get in the water with…them?” reply friends and family, moments after uploading a mobile journalism (MOJO) video to Facebook.

New Year’s Day on one of South Africa’s busiest beaches.

“With who?” I ask, provocatively.

A national debate ensues.

The black. Often referred to in the singular by racists.

The water, they say, wasn’t warmed by 2016’s first scorching Friday, nor the Indian Ocean currents, but a sea of black people’s pee.

Monkeys; the reaction of #PennySparrow and others to newspaper front-page pictures captured from an emergency helicopter.

The tired perspective of a sweeping camera shot from a salaried cameraman could never bring a true perspective. But it’s all we had.

A black rectangle carved into the ocean, the big picture of Durban’s festive season is similar every year, enticing the usual “Finding Sipho,” snide remarks. It’s a straightforward fluff story, shot with wide-angle lens. But South Africa’s complexities are in the details.

MOJO changes the landscape. Cell phone technology allows the first hand perspective of the individual in “the sea of black”. The view of the derided taxi driver, the daily domestic worker and numerous other narratives formerly unheard.

I don’t holiday. A MOJO’s next story is just a cell phone’s reach away and I filmed Durban’s crowded beaches with sand between my toes, and in the breaks between the waves. Singing ‘Shosholoza’, and jeering the lifeguards with the crowds. This wasn’t a typical story of previously whites-only beaches. It didn’t discuss the distance people still travel to reach the ocean on this special day.

Just fun in the sun, now approaching 200K Facebook views and stimulating a necessary and fierce national debate.

The ‘monkey’ comments, and subsequent racist witch-hunt all catalyzed the video, ammunition for the ‘look what a good time everyone was having’ counter-racism narrative. Timing is everything in journalism.

Yet every ‘viral video’ I’ve ever produced was incidental; the consequence of inconspicuously filming on a cell phone or small handheld device. So why were there not more positive stories on Durban’s beaches, from the tens of thousands of selfies and videos filmed on sand dusted cell phones?

Defying South Africa’s prejudices and insular views requires more mobile journalists. Photographing the Golden Mile from a helicopter showed scale, but in the sea I captured sentiment.

Yet, I didn’t film anything that couldn’t be captured by any beachgoer with a smartphone and a watertight Ziploc bag. So why weren’t there more feel-good stories online?

We can’t blame a lack of devices. Stats SA estimate there are more cell phones than people in South Africa (133% cell phone penetration to be precise). Perhaps prohibitive data costs are keeping South Africa’s MOJO appetite at bay. On the institutional side too, no media houses truly owns the citizen journalism space, so where would the public publish beyond social media?

In a country where our media is so distinctly polarized, with the elitist Mail & Guardian at one end and the tokolosh riddled Daily Sun on the other, MOJO lets South Africans tell their own stories. From the #FeesMustFall protestors complaining that the media painted them as savages, to the upcoming municipal elections, South Africans can own their narrative. No more wide-angle photographs of black people on a beach. Their power is in their pocket. Their strength is in their cell phones.

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