Patty Loew, a CALS professor of life sciences communication, recently traveled to Mozambique to train community-based journalists in a number of rural villages. Loew is a veteran broadcast journalist and a co-host of “In Wisconsin,” a weekly news and public affairs program that airs statewide on Wisconsin Public Television. An enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, Loew has authored numerous scholarly and general interest articles and books on Native American topics and produced several award-winning documentaries, including No Word for Goodbye, Throwaway Future, and The Way of the Warrior, which have appeared on commercial and public television stations throughout the country.
What was your project in Mozambique? Why were you interested in pursuing this?
I worked with ORAM, a Mozambican NGO, to train community-based journalists (CBJ) in villages near Quelimane. ORAM has been helping these villages secure official certificates to manage their lands. Village leaders feel that identifying their needs and successes and communicating them to their government and outside world is critical to their success. The Mozambican journalists were nominated by their villages to learn digital storytelling. Both Fawn Youngbear Tibbets, a life sciences communication senior who accompanied me on this trip, and I saw parallels between the Mozambican villages and our own Native American communities. Like us, they’re trying to find sustainable development, and, like us, they have a rich storytelling tradition.
How would you define community-based journalism? What kinds of professional and personal backgrounds did your students have?
To me, community-based journalists are professionally trained journalists who focus on local issues. They are journalists who have a relationship with or a stake in the communities on which they report and whose stories reflect broad participation from their communities. The students I worked with had completed six or seven years of primary school, but had no professional background in journalism.
What role does community-based journalism currently play in Mozambique?
For the past few years CBJs, particularly those in radio, have been meeting to talk about the role they might play in development and to undergo skills training, so I think the concept of community-based journalism in Mozambique is still evolving. The community journalists there want to be inclusive; they want to be balanced; and they want to reflect the character of their communities—all solid ideals, I think.
What potential do you see for its future?
It’s all about connections. For example, Edwardo Bofete, one of the Mozambican journalists, lives in a village that’s without water. The village pump broke more than a year ago, so villagers have to travel some distance to a water source and carry it back by hand. It’s particularly difficult for children who go to school all day and have no access to water. He hopes that by telling this story, someone will come to fix their pump. If I were a civil engineering professor looking for a good project for my students and I saw this story on YouTube, you bet I’d be interested. So the opportunity to become part of the world community via the Internet has tremendous potential.
What could help community-based journalism really take flight there, i.e., what resources are needed most?
They could really use some small digital cameras with microphones. Right now they have only one camera for 12 journalists, some of whom live six hours from Quelimane. So for Edwardo to do his water story, he must travel six hours to Quelimane to pick up the camera, travel six hours back to his community to shoot his report, travel six hours back to Quelimane to return the camera and have his story edited and burned to DVD, then hope that someone he knows is headed for Maputo, the capital—a two-day drive—where the story can be uploaded to the Internet. I mean, that’s just an impossible situation!
How have you seen community-based journalism play out in ethnic minority groups in the United States? What does it offer these communities?
Native American media are good examples of community-based journalism. We have hundreds of tribal newspapers and radio stations and even a few television stations that provide unique voices. Native media cover local events and issues that mainstream media ignore and offer distinctly Native features. Some radio stations broadcast programs in their Native tongue and tribal newspapers often print vocabulary and puzzles in their own languages. Many of these languages are considered threatened and in danger of going dormant.
Every trip abroad offers indelible experiences and impressions. What did you take with you from this one?
For me, it was meeting a group of local Mozambicans at dinner the first night. We talked about politics, religion and all those things you’re not supposed to talk about in conversations that were stimulating and meaningful. We became friends and have continued our friendship via Facebook and Skype. Our last night in Quelimane, they cooked a nine-course Mozambican meal for us using only local foods. One of our friends brought his acoustic guitar and played Mozambican freedom songs and Brazilian sambas. It was a magical evening and reinforced for me how enriching and precious cultural exchanges can be.
Do you have any concerns about “citizen/community” journalists undercutting the profession?
I am concerned about this. We are inundated with information that blurs the lines between objectivity and opinion. We have bloggers, political spin doctors and people who deliberately spread disinformation. For the less discerning news consumer, it might be difficult to know sometimes what is—and is not—journalism. As long as citizen journalists adhere to the ideals of journalism—objectivity, fairness and balance—I have no problem with them. In countries without freedom of speech, citizen journalists are indispensable. But I think there’s a difference between “citizen” and “community-based” journalists. The first implies an observer with no formal training; the second implies an observer who has journalistic training and adheres to journalistic ideals.
We also hear you had a run-in with a mango. What was that about?
Oh boy! Could I be the first person who’s ever been knocked cold by a mango? Edwardo arrived one morning with a terrible toothache. Luckily, Fawn had studied dentistry and knew he needed help. She had some medicated toothache swabs back at the hotel, so she and one of the ORAM workers went to retrieve them. About a minute after they left, I remembered that I had penicillin and pain medication in my first aid kit, so I ran after them, hoping to catch them before they left the parking lot. There was a mango tree outside the office with a very hard, very unripe mango dangling from a low-hanging branch. I ran full tilt into it and the mango caught me smack dab in my left eye. I saw stars and then I didn’t see anything.
The next thing I remember I was back in the office with a cold compress on my eye. When the stars and the pain subsided, the ridiculousness of the situation hit me and I started to laugh—one of those snorting, crying, laughing jags where you just can’t stop. And the more I laughed, the more horrified the Mozambican journalists became (“She’s knocked herself silly!”), and that made me laugh even more. There was no way to communicate with them (our interpreters were dealing with Edwardo’s emergency), which just added to the absurdity. At dinner that night our new Mozambican friends got a good chuckle out of the story and began referring to their town, Quelimane (pronounced Kill-a-mahn-nay), as Killermango!