One-on-one | Media

Brandon Oelofse: It’s not so much a revolution as it is a war

By - 13.01.2020

The director of the Radio Netherlands Training Center talks about inclusiveness, minorities and bringing new voices into 21st century media.

Brandon Oelofse is a globally known media maker and trainer. The current director of Radio Netherlands Training Center (RNTC) visited Prishtina in November 2019 as part of K2.0’s Media Now conference, where he led workshops on social media and advocacy journalism. His workshops dealt with opening up the media to minorities and being more inclusive in their journalism.

Using new social media techniques Oelofse showed journalists how to hold a conversation with their audience. This, he says, is the new journalism of the 21st century. Journalists must learn how to tell new stories, in new ways, using new technology. 

He works closely on inclusion issues in the media and has worked with governments on counter-extremist messaging. Oelofse oversees the RNTC’s Media for Influence, Media for Behavior Change and Media for Counter Radicalization and Violent Extremism studies.

He originally hails from South Africa, where he was the founder of Vusulela Media, an organization that works on grassroots media literacy. 

Oelofse has made award-winning films and commercials for a variety of companies and organizations and headed his own production house. He also consults internationally for UNESCO, UNICEF and governments around the world on media policy. 

Oelofse’s main takeaway for his audiences is: “Understand who you are listening to and if you look for voices not heard before that’s the way to get new fresh content.”

He is also involved in gay rugby activism. Oelofse helped found the Jozi Cats, the first gay and inclusive rugby team in South Africa, and until recently he played for the ARC Amsterdam Lowlanders, an LGBT rugby team in the Netherlands. 

K2.0 sat down with him for a conversation about the inclusion of minority viewpoints and the future of media in the 21st century.

Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

K2.0: You do a lot of work on minority and inclusion issues in journalism. What kind of pushback do you get from journalists on that? And how do you talk to them about including minority issues? 

Brandon Oelofse: I think it’s really important to know most journalists still think that they are reporting for the mass, so they are trying to bring information to the masses. So when your focus is a mass audience, you are always looking for the mass or mainstream point of view.

Minority points of view are often silenced from the discussion or not considered in the discussion at all. Because minority groups are not part of the mainstream, they are silenced from the discussion. How do we convince journalists to get that on their radar?

Society needs pushes and we need to be pushed.

The journalists we work with often want to report from a particular point of view and don’t want to break tradition; or they think that they need to be objective so they are not taking a side. And think that if they do it differently, it breaks tradition or is against journalists’ ethics and codes of practice.

So often we try to give them a different point of view. Or we empower civil society and minority groups to be able to access the media. And I feel like that’s more important sometimes.

Unless you are aware of the issues or you live the issue you’re not going to be a credible voice. Giving LGBT audiences or minority groups the tools they need to access the media equally and still produce ethical, quality journalism. Otherwise you’re not going to hear those voices at all. 

And when we don’t have those voices, what are we losing?

Well society needs pushes and we need to be pushed. And we need to be made aware that our experience of life is not the only experience. By getting people to see life from a different point of view often gives people a new point of view. Hearing from people who are not like us challenges our construct of reality. 

I’m six foot seven [two meters in height]. I was watching a television program where they put cameras on the heads of children and little people, and they let them walk through a mall to see the challenges they face through life. This gave me a new perspective on the world and that’s what we need — a new perspective.

We need to be able to say, “Hey your point of view might not be the best point of view.  While this is the agreed point of view, there are other points of view that are just as valid and just as credible.”

You come from South Africa and were part of what was once the ruling classes, let’s say. How did you come to the point where you started thinking about minority viewpoints and why they need to be communicated?

In South Africa it’s a very different thing because the minority ruled over the majority. So the voices of the majority were stifled by the minority groups that controlled the media and controlled access to it. South Africa is a really difficult example.

But back in South Africa, I founded and started a media literacy accelerator NGO that focused on surfacing citizen journalism at a time when most of the reporting and most of the issues were focused around the cities, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban. Those were where you were hearing the most dominant voices. 

But these media are from a place of privilege. This was because most people who live in cities were middle class and have access to education. But the people who were the poorest of the poor, the people who are most affected by social problems, the people who are most affected by economic problems, are stuck in backwater rural towns. The media never accesses them, never asks their opinion and never finds insight from them.

What I found really profound about this work was that the same social issues affected everybody.

So our program went to these poverty node areas. Under the Thabo Mbeki government, these were known as poverty nodes. And these were where people were most affected by HIV and social issues, like poverty. So we taught them how to produce their own media. At first it was small documentaries then radio programming — to speak to their own constituency. 

We connected these young people — specifically young people — to radio networks where they broadcast to their local communities. From the local communities we started networking radio stations and TV networks and plugged them into the national dialogue. That dialogue meant we were reaching 4 to 5 million young people a week by bringing in these regions where nobody ever saw or heard from these points of view. 

They were still really relevant to the conversation and hooking them into bigger issues around young people in South Africa. So we produced a weekly show that included cell phone footage, and all sorts of footage from little handicams and such, that we taught young people to use as citizen journalists in a network of citizen journalists.

Photo: Atdhe Mulla/ K2.0.

At the height of the program, we had around 107 citizen journalists in communities across the country. And that fed into a weekly program and that program fed into a primetime slot that was on national television so young people could access it freely. So it started conversations, and it linked these conversations. 

What I found really profound about this work was that the same social issues affected everybody but there were different positive solutions that we hadn’t considered. And by looping in these communities, they could actually share their value and could actually give us some of the solutions to the problems that everybody was facing. So we looked to the communities to solve their own problems and get them to provide those [solutions] as a dialogue. 

Can you talk a little bit about the role of technology in citizen journalism and how technology releases and democratizes citizen journalism? 

There is the saying that there are no more gatekeepers. The gatekeepers have vanished, and I think that is partially true. Because there used to be a ceiling and the person who controlled the media controlled the point of view.

With the spread of technology, there is much more democracy and everybody’s voice is being equally heard. Actually it’s the voices that are unique, that have a very clear focus, that are clear in their purpose, that are finding the largest audiences. 

It’s a war to see: Are we going to come out of it alive?

Certain activists have great followings because they’re clear about what they stand for. And this was not always clear in an old mass media point of view. Now you have people very specifically on old beats.

You know how you used to get these beat journalists who focused on one thing? Now you’ve got average individuals and ordinary citizens covering really important beats. Beats from a unique perspective, from a young perspective, from a fresh perspective and that’s the democracy that’s happened. You’re getting these points of views. 

Do you think what we’re seeing right now is a revolution in journalism? Because of technology, because of citizen journalism, because of hearing different viewpoints? Covering these different issues and often the same issues but getting these different viewpoints?

Journalism is changing. Well actually, media is changing and the way we consume media is changing. Journalism wants to stay the same, and it’s trying to avoid using some of the tools and techniques that are being used by sometimes nefarious players on the scene. They’re really effective at getting their messages across. But journalism wants to really stick by its principles and rules without taking them [their messages] into account. 

The revolution is actually going to be to see who wins. It’s not so much a revolution as it is a war. It’s a war to see: Are we going to come out of it alive? As we’re seeing across the world the old institutions are dying and if they don’t improve their services, if they don’t improve the way they formulate their messages and the way they’re telling their stories then they’re dying.

What if these tools and techniques fall into the wrong hands? Well guys, it’s in the wrong hands already.

If you look at what the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian are doing, their stuff is being created by algorithms. They’re learning. They’re spending a lot of time in research and development and learning what their readers and users want from their stories and they’re placing them at the center.

But traditional journalism does not think like that. Traditional journalism is thinking very much like an old broadcaster: I have something to impart to you. And what you do with this I don’t care. I don’t think that’s responsible anymore. 

So what you’re saying is journalism needs to have that dialogue back and forth between the consumer and the journalist.

And getting back to the idea of inclusion and more inclusive voices, that’s where it needs to come from. So journalism is not just one message broadcast from power down or from privilege down. It’s also listening and responding to what people want. 

And so it’s many truths…

There’s many truths and this is what we’re fighting. And what everybody goes is: “So what if this falls into the wrong hands? What if these tools and techniques fall into the wrong hands?” Well guys, it’s in the wrong hands already.  

They’re already doing all of the things we’re looking at in this conference. We’re not. And if we don’t start looking, learning and responding… even if that response is our own narrative and then a different narrative. That’s fine as long as you have a point of view. And you’re directing and listening and using your own constituency to help develop that. 

For years we’ve hidden behind this statement to say that we’re not biased and we’re completely objective. Bullshit. Everybody is biased, everybody is subjective. Take that subjectivity and make it visible. Because that’s why people are turning away. 

Donald Trump is right when he says somebody is fake news because they’re saying we’re totally objective, but they’re coming from a subjective point of view. So they’re painting themselves as completely objective and non-judgmental, but what they’re actually doing is judgmental. 

If I’m a traditional journalist I would say: Listen I walk in, present both sides of the story I’m being objective.

If you’re doing it completely fair 50/50, down the middle fine, white bread journalism, that’s a kind of journalism. Are people responding to you? Are people taking that message and doing anything with it?

From research we know that there are about 30 — maximum — percent of people who see that article who are actually going to do anything with it. Because they are the people that need just information. But for the rest of us, we need [the journalist] to pick a side or tell a story in a compelling way that will make us move emotionally because that will be how we take it in. You can’t tell a story completely objectively.

When you are talking with older and perhaps set in their way journalists, about using technology and changing the way they even physically tell the story, how does that change the content of a story?

Well it’s not even about the technology, it’s about the audience. The biggest fights I’ve had over the last two days… well not fights, it’s not arguments, it’s looking at points of view… the biggest points of view we’ve had over the past two days related to people not understanding who their audience is and being scared of them.

We need to think about creating a space where people can have a conversation.

So they don’t want to consider their audience. I think the biggest issue has been around understanding audiences. Who you’re speaking to and what is relevant to them. I’ve been listening to the journalists respond and it’s been: “Our responsibility is to give these people information, I’m giving them information.”

That’s very push. Nobody considers what they know and what they don’t know. Nobody considers who their audience is. What tone should I use?

Think about any conversation. If you went into any conversation and you just shout information at somebody. You’re going to say, “Screw you buddy, I don’t want that. Thank you but no thanks.”

What I am suggesting is that we need to think about it as journalists. We need to think about having a conversation. And we need to think about creating a space where people can have a conversation. If we’re targeting young people maybe that conversation happens on Instagram and it is in a different tone. And if I’m targeting a millennial that conversation maybe on Facebook. 

It’s not about what you think people need to know. But what people already know. What information do they lack? And what skills do they lack? Or attitude they need to shift?

I don’t think it’s one way anymore. And what the democratization of the internet has done is to show us that we’ve been old school broadcasters. We’ve just pumped out information with no idea what happens to that information and what the consequence of that information is and now we’re being called on it. People are saying: “I don’t want that anymore; engage me in a dialogue and then you’re relevant in my life.”

It’s also about fear of the audience and fear at how they, the journalist, may be exposed?

It’s also about a journalist’s education in a particular institution or with a particular newspaper, working on a certain TV show. And you become stuck in a pattern of reporting or pattern of journalism. I think there is a disconnect.

We want to serve the public. But the public is not an audience; it’s just a nameless, faceless mass. We need to define who we are speaking to. We need to define who the story is for. And that takes some sitting down and hard work. We don’t always have the luxury of time to decide [what] audience a story is for. 

What will journalism be in five years? How will journalism change?

We can already see how journalism is being changed. Algorithms are looking at what people want and are driving the stories to the right audiences. Amazon is behind the Washington Post now. All of the data and insights that they gather on audience, on what people want to read, listen to — that understanding is going into the construction of the Washington Post.

But there is a fear that the independent, smaller media, that serve a smaller audience, for instance here in the Balkans — are going to be drowned by these bigger voices, mass corporate voices that you now have coming to the region?

Yes, but also there is an opportunity. Blogger networks, informal journalism where there are a number of great journalists that are working together on data journalism and investigative projects together. We are not seeing formalized structure anymore; it’s becoming a group of actors coming together to work for a common goal. 

They have a very clear aim in mind and they go to achieve that aim together. Yes, you have these big corporate voices that try to dominate the market. But the voices of people who really understand the voices of people they are trying to communicate to that are very clear.

A big conglomerate like a big German media house coming to work here? That’s fine. Do they know the local audiences like a local, independent journalist does? I don’t think so.

The conglomerates would scoop up these journalists and then they’re working for a corporate entity. That has its own risks?

Is it a problem? Because who are we serving? We’re serving the audience. And as long as the audience is still being served and getting value out of that then I don’t mind.

What’s happening to many journalists now is that they end up working for something that constricts their reporting. So some journalists compromise or lose their jobs.

To be honest I couldn’t answer that. When it comes to the economic parts of journalism, there are people much more suited to that than me. But what we are noticing in the countries where we work is that it’s harder to fund individual journalists, networks of journalists. Loose networks of journalists are harder to fund, and they’re also hard to find for a government. 

There is an advantage and disadvantage. So how do we give donor money to loose groups of people? It becomes very difficult. At the same time they protect themselves by not being in a physical space or in a physical office that can’t be monitored or shut down. So pros and cons.

Photo: Atdhe Mulla/ K2.0.

Now we have “journalists” who are 14 or 15, children basically. How do we trust these citizen journalists?

Well, I think it’s going to be that your voice is credible. How many people are following you? Are you consistent in messaging? Are you verified? There are all of these things that make you trust us more.

And young people are really savvy about this. Now we’re digital natives. We’ve been born with cell phones in our hands so we can see if somebody is not legitimate based on your history. This is going to become more and more important. 

People need to be really cognizant about the messages they’re putting out. Greta Thunberg for example. Here’s an activist who started to put out messaging that’s consistent. If you look at all of her social media, I know to trust her. And there is already this economy of trust that is being created by citizen journalists and citizen reporters and commentators in all aspects of new journalism.

Do you support media literacy in schools? How young do we need to start? Starting from primary school?

I’ve done a fair amount of media literacy curriculum development for young people for journalists, for activists. Media literacy is essential. The people most affected by fake news and disinformation are young people under 15 and people older than 45. Those are the two major groups that disinformation really affects.

If you have media literacy in schools, it really curbs the sharing of disinformation at a young age. But how do we reach the older audiences who are set and stuck in their ways? It’s about education and we may have to get young people to educate the older people.K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla/ K2.0.