One-on-one | Media

Yusuf Omar: It’s easy to manipulate one camera, it’s difficult to manipulate thousands

By - 28.08.2019

International mobile journalist discusses camera glasses, hitchhiking to Syria and how we should've seen Donald Trump coming.

Yusuf Omar’s story starts with doors being closed in his face. 

Media companies weren’t interested in giving a job to somebody who had just finished his studies in journalism, so in his words, he “showed them the middle finger” before hitchhiking 12,000 km up the African coast to the Middle East. It was a journey that paved the way to his worldwide distinguished career in mobile journalism.

Born in London, UK, he moved to Australia when he was 14, before moving to South Africa to study journalism at the age of 21.

Photo courtesy of Yusuf Omar.

He ended up in Egypt during the Arab Spring in 2011, and in a previous interview he said that he was in the right place at the wrong time: Some of his reports ended up getting published on the front pages of various newspapers in South Africa. He worked for different media outlets, working for newspapers but also experimenting with video. 

While working with eNCA (eNews Channel Africa) in 2014 and covering the war Syria he ended up producing stories with his mobile phone, despite the cameras and other tools available to him. It would bring him “faster and more intimate” stories, advantages he still thinks are part of mobile journalism. 

Not long later, he began to be hired by various international media outlets. He worked as a mobile editor at the Hindustan Times and CNN and in 2016 was named as the Thomson Foundation’s Mobile Journalist of the Year.

In September 2017, Omar co-founded Hashtag Our Stories, a platform that has empowered hundreds of mobile journalists across the world to tell stories through their phones by promoting “MOJO” (mobile journalism) around the world. 

The platform, which was recently invested in by Snap Inc. (the company behind Snapchat), has the motto “More cameras, more perspectives, more truth.” 

Omar, Hashtag Our Stories’ editorial and tech lead, says their focus is on innovators and changemakers with unique stories. 

We train communities around the world to help them tell their own stories, and we have a team of journalists all around the world that helps them make sense of it and package it into a story,” he says. 

Photo courtesy of Yusuf Omar.

As he prepared to leave Russia and head to Kosovo for our next edition of Volume UP, K2.0 connected with him over Skype and discussed the changing face of journalism in the 21st century and how technology can be harnessed to help journalism change the world.

K2.0: Reading articles about your life, work and career in journalism, it’s clear that you have a great passion for journalism. Is it something that you always wanted to do, or it came about as an accident?

Yusuf Omar: I think it was a bit of both. I didn’t grow up as a child thinking I want to be a journalist. 

I had just finished a degree in marketing and management and I was going to become an advertiser, I was going to communicate and sell products. 

And I was actually standing in Times Square, in New York City, you know the big billboard with flashing lights — I was looking at a man with tight underwear. And in that moment I knew I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to create content selling people shit they don’t really need.

Fundamentally I believe it makes some kind of difference to not just be part of the world but also change the world, to immerse yourself into other peoples’ lives.

I then applied for anything, medicine and all sorts of things, and I ended up getting a scholarship for journalism in South Africa. I didn’t even remember having applied for journalism to be honest. And my parents were [like], “Quickly says yes before they think they made a mistake.” 

So I accepted it and I moved to South Africa and started doing journalism at Rhodes University. I fell in love with it. It enlightened me and it fitted my personality so well. 

The ability to talk to people for a living, the ability to travel the entire world, the ability to… fundamentally I believe it makes some kind of difference to have cause and effect, to not just be part of the world but also change the world, to immerse yourself into other peoples’ lives. 

For so many reasons, it was an incredibly valuable experience that changed the rest of my life. So to answer your question, it wasn’t something that as a child I was, “I really wanna do this.” It was something I tasted and I fell in love with instantly.

Can journalism really change the world? 

Yes, absolutely. 

There’s a famous saying in Islamic teachings … when you look at one of the sayings of Prophet Mohammed and they talk about … [when] an evil and injustice are being committed the first thing you can do is to think that it is wrong. The second thing you can do is to say something about it being wrong. The third thing you can do is you can do something, you can act on it. 

And I think journalism is between the second and third steps. It is somewhere between saying something and doing something.  And that’s why I think it can have an immense impact on society and bringing about positive change.

And for you it all started with hitchhiking, or at least this is what you once said in an interview?

In 2010 I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and tell stories from wars, natural disasters — and newsrooms said “No.” They were cutting budgets. They didn’t want youngsters travelling around. 

Photo courtesy of Yusuf Omar.

So basically I gave them the middle finger and started doing it myself. I started travelling and hitchhiking, raising my thumbs in the wind and catching rides for free all the way from South Africa to Damascus, Syria. 

I was 21 years old and my parents were terrified. I did it because I really wanted to disprove the myths that Africa is this big, dark, scary continent full of civil wars, diseases and dangers, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. And having been on that journey I saw a very different picture, I saw a very positive story of Africa, full of warmth, very safe, very welcoming. 

So it wasn’t just a journey in sort of mobile journalism, in terms of being able to capture a story myself, being able to shoot, edit, write, use all the different tools, but it was also a journey in constructive journalism.

[It was] solution-based storytelling, not just focusing on problems in societies but looking for answers, and solutions. It was the start of my journey to kind of disprove and debunk some of the myths, stereotypes and prejudices that people have in different parts of the world.

The ability of mobile journalism is the ability to really appreciate distinctive local stories that are relevant to global markets.

What do you think about the work of foreign contributors and correspondents? How much can they dig into the core of issues surrounding the lives of people and communities they cover? Or is the insight they give limited to the surface and by doing that they only add to the prejudices and biases about a certain country or group of people?

I think for the most part the traditional media organizations are designed to go for the most universal stories. And often that means the broadest generalizations, stories that are easy for audiences to understand, that are relevant to their local markets. In doing so, we end up with an incredibly polarized world where we show, in the case of the U.S., racism at one end and liberal elites on the other. 

In reality the world is far more complex than that. And I think the ability of mobile journalism, when you train communities and curate voices, is the ability to really appreciate distinctive local stories that are relevant to global markets and to not go for generalization, to not go for easy stories, but to find more difficult stories. 

In terms of your question about foreign contributors and correspondents parachuting into locations that are not their own, I think we see it all the time. Is it of more value to have that foreign correspondent on the ground or is it more valuable to have locals sort of speaking from their own perspective, having lived that experience and having journalists fact checking and verifying that information. I believe it is more valuable to have the real people there then [have their stories] fact checked by professional journalists. 

So you are suggesting that mobile journalism can have that important role to bring those unheard stories to the surface in the middle of the polarized world. Because it is also presumably more practical in terms of tools like mobiles that can trigger a higher mobility?

Good journalism has always been about a variety of sources. If you have a report and you conduct a poll, a survey, you interview two people, or you interview 2,000 people. The survey of 2,000 people is generally a more accurate survey because you have a more holistic view of society, and it’s the same with mobile journalism. You have the opportunity to not only speak to one or two experts but to speak to plenty of people from a number of backgrounds.

The very reason that we missed the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. was because they were not listening to Middle America.

With the use of mobile phones, and specifically selfie cameras and videos, there’s no reason not to more accurately predict elections, for example, when you can really listen to the center of  communities on the ground in places that are usually ignored by the traditional media. The very reason that we missed the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. was because they were not listening to Middle America. We missed Brexit in the UK because they were listening to London but not the greater UK. 

So mobile phones and mobile journalism and communities were communicating their own stories. And when we listen to their stories we have a far better sense of what’s going on in the world. 

I think that even when we look today the deep fakes that exists … we have seen the rise of these manipulating videos … for me, the only way to fight it is mobile journalism. The ability to have lots of mobile phones, all primed at one location, one event, to help us verify what’s going on. It’s easy to manipulate one camera, it’s difficult to manipulate thousands.

Photo courtesy of Yusuf Omar.

So it’s not only about the traditional media not having the right approach to producing content, but also about the tools that they use during the production?

It’s a change from a centralized way of thinking about stories when you have one camera pointing at a situation to decentralizing the way of thinking about storytelling. We have numerous things all pointing at the same situation or the situation pointing the camera out itself.

When we start looking we are moving now beyond mobile journalism and starting to experiment more and more with wearable journalism. I always wear a camera on my face. The idea is, hey, can we put a camera onto the subject matter and … actually see stories through their eyes?

So, yes, the traditional media has failed to pick up a new answer to the world because they rely too much on a centralized way of telling stories when they hold the camera.

You mentioned the term “constructive journalism,” which you say is a solution-based kind of journalism. Doesn’t it begin to cross over with activism and advocacy? There are media professionals that support this intersection but also those that insist on separating journalism from taking part in the cause.

I think when you are at journalism school you are always taught that journalism is simply reporting about what is happening in front of your eyes. The problem with that is that it no longer has value to consumers. If we are simply journalists reporting the who, where, what and when, those things will all be distributed to the audience from social media in a verified way before journalists can get to it.

If that fits with advocacy and taking a stance, then I say there are stories that a journalist can take a stance on.

So I can give you an example: A fire takes place in Kiev today, in the city center, or in any city for that matter. What’s happened there … the where, will be available. The when will be available — all those basic details will already be taken care of. The only real value that professional journalism has, I believe, and especially valuable in terms of something people are willing to pay for, is the WHY and the HOW.

Why things happen and how can we make them better? And these are not the kind of basics of journalism, the straightaway reporting. They are more about insights, analysis, context, and that’s why I say that the role of a journalist is and should be focused on constructive journalism. Not just identifying problems but talking also about solutions. 

If that fits with advocacy and taking a stance, then I say there are stories that a journalist can take a stance on. Can we take a stance on climate change? I think we can. I do not think we are in a position to say, hey, these people are denying there’s global warming and let’s simply talk about that. 

Everyone can be a reporter but journalism requires certain principles, ethics, which helps us to work out what’s real and what isn’t.

No, we have to come out and we have to say that global warming is a reality and is scientifically [proven]. Should we take a stance against harassment and abuse. I think we should. There are a lot of instances where journalists should definitely take a stance, take a position on stories.

Where do mobile and citizen journalism interlink together and where does the line stand?  

When I talk about mobile journalism, for me at least, I’m not referring to mobile phones. I’m referring to any form of ability and availability to tell stories … anyone with the ability to tell a story entirely on their own, without a big news organ behind you. 

For me, mobile journalism changes with time. Today it’s a cell phone and tomorrow, definitely, without a doubt, will be wearable cameras on your face, or wearable tech.

In terms of citizen journalism and mobile journalism I think mobile journalism is simply one tool at the disposal of citizen journalists. Citizen journalists could be writing a blog, could be creating sort of podcasts; mobile journalism is simply one tool, a weapon at their disposal. 

What’s important to distinguish, I think, is that everyone can be a reporter … but journalism requires certain principles, ethics, not necessarily derived from university, but definitely derived from some form of training, which helps us to work out what’s real and what isn’t.

Photo courtesy of Yusuf Omar.

One might say that “everybody being a reporter” can have negative consequences. There have been many occasions when we have seen citizens reporting about, let’s say, a bomb blast — it contributed to the dissemination of unchecked and incorrect information. 

That’s journalism. That’s the role of a journalist to work out that side of the situation. The ability of citizens to be reporters and simply provide additional camera angles on a particular event I think is incredibly useful. 

I think there’s value to any form of contribution, even the lies or false information. Once you can contextualize and understand who those people are and why they’re sharing false information, if it’s deliberate it’s a very interesting part of the story. I think the technology is getting better and better to help us work out what’s real and what’s not.

Nowadays we can tell the date and time, and often the location and the type of mobile device it  was filmed on. And so much more information. We have the notion of tech and check; using technology to check is getting better and better and we increasingly find that a lot of easy verification will be taking place entirely by tech.

To go back to the fire in Kiev or anywhere; do you trust one camera on that fire? Or do you trust thousands of cameras that document different angles and perspectives? I trust a thousand angles of it.K

You can see Yusuf Omar talking live about mobile journalism on Thursday, August 29, 18:00 at K2.0 Hub.

Feature image: Courtesy of Yusuf Omar.

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