Maria Popova | Interviews

Helping People Help Their Narratives

Tiziano reporter Sazan Mandalawi learns how to use social media tools at a workshop in Iraq. Photo: Jon Vidar / The Tiziano Project

"Citizen journalism" has been one of 2010's most frivolous buzz phrases, tossed around like a democratic panacea for the injustices and imbalances of news. A leap of logic consistently accompanies the concept: the assumption that mere access to new-media tools and platforms is necessary and sufficient for this breed of decentralized, mass-driven reporting. Necessary, certainly. Sufficient, hardly. What makes the difference between mere information gathering and true journalistic practice, with its compelling storytelling and investigative rigor, is the mastering of those tools.

This is precisely what the The Tiziano Project addresses. Founded in 2007, the nonprofit provides occupants of conflict, post-conflict and underreported regions with the equipment, resources and – perhaps most important – training to tell the stories that shape their world and, in the process, better their lives. It is as much about community empowerment on the local level as it is about harnessing collaborative journalism on a global scale, using the capacity of photojournalism, multimedia storytelling and information technology to foster a new kind of communication education.

In this interview, founder Andrew McGregor talks about the project’s goals, the democratization of the newsroom, Tiziano's recent effort in Kurdistan and the importance of sensitivity to cultural differences in the process of implementing new-media platforms.

Maria Popova: How did the Tiziano Project begin, and where do you hope it will go?

Andrew McGregor: The Tiziano Project started as a group of idealistic friends from graduate school throwing up a website and heading to Rwanda. In the future, I hope it will become an even larger global community of local journalists teaching others in their communities while using media to create jobs, all united by purpose, innovation, and collaboration.

MP: How has your background in documentary photography affected the way you approach Tiziano's mission and the issues the project addresses?

AM: One time I was in rural Czech Republic and was at a barbecue with people I had just met. I passed my camera around and they took photos of each other. The pictures were absolutely beautiful, full of soulful expressions and smiles. They were also completely different from the photos I took of people in the town. A large part of the art of documentary photography is conveying and creating a sense of calm, comfort and trust in very harsh and difficult situations. If a person is from the community, that trust is already there and it’s just a matter of education and technology to help them become great journalists and visual storytellers.

MP: What were the biggest challenges with the pilot project in Rwanda? How did you go about solving them?

AM: Probably the biggest challenge was in never having started an NGO before and the issues stemming from that. We just had relentless faith and we did it.

MP: Would you say growing up in Littleton, Colorado, around the time of the Columbine shootings equipped you with a special kind of inquisitive empathy for crisis?

AM: It's hard to comprehend the extent of how that massacre affected me and others in the community. I remember the added pain of having the media elite fly in to Littleton and dictate the meaning of the tragedy to the community and the nation. It's hard to permit an understanding of human nature for things like Columbine, but it was our tragedy, and others came in and exploited it for morally and professionally bankrupt self-aggrandizement. I had an instinct that people in Rwanda would feel the same way about the genocide, only much deeper and more profound. So the opportunity to tell their own story in their own way would be considered a sacred right.

MP: What have been the most surprising aspects of your experience documenting Iraqi citizens in the Kurdish north?

AM: I haven't physically been to Iraqi Kurdistan yet, but we were able to do the program because of a grant we won from Chase Community Giving on Facebook, in which we had to get votes (and a lot of them) while competing against well-established not-for-profits with huge mailing lists. Members of the Kurdish diaspora spent countless hours helping us win the contest, and I was deeply touched that people I had never met from all around the world were so committed to a shared and sacred dream.

MP: No doubt there are cultural differences in the practice of journalism education. But have you found any universals?

AM: Every culture and every country has journalists, even if there aren't professional outlets for them to flourish. There are always people in a community who are the teller of stories and who hold the powerful to account.

MP: I grew up in Eastern Europe, where the cultural norm is for people to complain. A lot. About everything. How do you ensure Tiziano is used as a platform for signal — for issues of real humanitarian importance — and not as an outlet for noise, attracting every petty, mundane grievance imaginable?

AM: We hope that all of our students become the great journalists they want to be or use media to advance their careers and help them support their communities and families. We emphasize journalistic ethics and community responsibility and divide our stories into three broad narratives (human rights, livelihood, and culture). The combination of narrative structure building off of the body of Tiziano stories from around the world with a sense of professional purpose ensures that what we do is unique, awesome and pertinent. Also, the people in the places we work tend to not have the luxury of petty grievances.

MP: As we shift toward new media, is the dissolution of the traditional newsroom as a source of quality reporting making journalism more collaborative or more fragmented? And is fragmentation necessary for democracy or an obstacle to it?

AM: New media is helping journalism to become collaborative. People have to work together and link each other's work and continue to grow and innovate and tell stories in new and amazing ways. Having various interests and groups of people able to articulate wishes and injustices is part of a democratic society. I think beyond the potential value of fragmentation, the belief and practice of incorrupt law modified by transparent, democratic institutions is paramount for such a society to exist.

MP: Why "Tiziano"?

AM: The organization is named after my journalism hero, Tiziano Terzani. He was too wonderful to fully describe here, and everyone should read his book A Fortune Teller Told Me before they die, but I will say that he was one of the very few Western foreign correspondents to remain in Saigon after America left Vietnam, and that's the spirit of the organization.

Posted in: Education , Media, Social Good

Comments [2]

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Thanks for this entry Maria -- I will check out the Tiziano Project right now...
West Anna Maria

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