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Telling news stories from bat’s eye view

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Writer: Odoobo C. Bichachi. PHOTO/COURTESY

A few years ago, I visited a media organisation in Cape Town, South Africa, with a unique approach to journalism. It is called GroundUp. Their tagline is “We publish news that matters” and to them, news that matters is not the speeches of politicians in Parliament, in the constituency or at diplomatic cocktails.

It is not quotes of high achievers in business and various professions on a trending subject. It is not the decrees and pronouncements of municipal leaders or law enforcement officers.

The news that matters is the perspectives of people on the ground; the ordinary citizens, things that affect them, things that give them hope, etc.

“Ground news” does not routinely make it into newspaper pages or television news bulletins except as “nuisance subjects” or objects of pity. This is because people on the ground are generally not news makers; they are news subjects – often of negative news that tends to turn away affluent consumers, hence minimising it.

GroundUp’s journalism is mostly features-based and tries to tell the stories of people at the bottom rung of society. This journalism does not popularly sell, so it is financed by donations of well-wishers who appreciate it.

In taking this direction, GroundUp essentially runs against the grain of mainstream media that likes to take a bird’s eye view of issues and events; foretelling what’s coming on the political, economic and social fronts, or just what has happened from the vantage point of well-connected sources, research, and hunch.

But what would the news look like if journalists every so often took a bat’s eye view of events, rather than the usual bird’s eye view? Bats, as we all know, easily pass off as birds because they too fly but when not flying, they hang on tree branches upside down. What do they see of unfolding incidents in their vicinity looking at it upside down?

I was tickled to ask these questions as I recently read a story on ProPublica, an online media house with another unique journalism proposition (see ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Its tagline is, “A weekly newsletter about wrongdoing in America”. This particular story was about evictions of the homeless in Albuquerque City, Canada. ProPublica chose to tell the story from a simple angle; what were the most valuable items the evicted homeless people lost in the melee of eviction.

They interviewed a number of the evicted people asking them the same question; “What object was most devastating for you to lose and how are you coping?” They also chose not to use pictures of the eviction, or the evictees because photos would only attract attention to the distressed persons.

One of the moving testimonies was of Christian Smith and what was the most devastating object she lost? “Dentures. [They] were thrown away and coping isn’t something I can do. It’s made me feel ugly, unworthy, can’t get a job with no teeth. So how can I get off the streets until another pair can be made?”

In my mind, I was juxtaposing these stories with the coverage in our media of the recent eviction of hundreds from Lubigi swamp, near Kampala, by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema).

While it is okay to take a bird’s eye view trumpeting soundbites of Nema executive director, painting a picture of the illegal homesteads and makeshift shops laid to waste, or amplifying the wailing of the victims, a lot of small but important personal details are lost to the bird’s eye. So how about taking a bat’s eye view looking from the ground upwards?

One of the evictees, Rehema Namuddu, 69, who was photographed standing amidst the rubble holding her chicken that had survived the bulldozers definitely made a great picture of pity but is this all about her?

As the ProPublica articles notes, many people lose valuable personal items like ID cards, birth certificates, medical documents, medicines, family photos, children school reports, etc that are irreplaceable. These objects tell the most personal stories of the impact of brazen evictions on their lives. Could the losses have been ameliorated in the eviction? Can Nema use its powers better to achieve the same thing humanely? A bat’s eye view is a good way to bring out such stories, and ask questions.

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