English and Hindi dailies in India do not have the mechanism to be able to source stories from rural and marginalized areas and as a result, devote only 2 percent of their total coverage to rural issues. By building a pan-India network of professionally trained citizen video-correspondents, drawn from the poorest and marginalized communities, Jessica Mayberry is creating the architecture necessary to ensure that the voices of the poor are heard in mainstream media.
Indian English and Hindi dailies devote only 2 percent of their total coverage to rural issues, as they do not have the mechanism to be able to source stories from rural and marginalized areas. By building a pan-India network of professionally trained citizen video-correspondents, drawn from the poorest and marginalized communities, Jessica is creating the architecture necessary to ensure that the voices of the poor are heard in mainstream media.
Jessica sees marginalized communities not only recipients of information, but also as active creators of content. She believes local people who have been subjects of discrimination are uniquely placed to be better correspondents, as they have a first hand perspective on local issues. Also, given their economic status, a viable livelihood opportunity is critical for them. Jessica taps into the unique potential of marginalized citizens by equipping them with the tools of empathy and articulation. She pushes them to go beyond their own stories and become voices of their communities.
Jessica sees marginalized communities not only as recipients of information, but also as active creators of content. She believes local people who have been the subjects of discrimination are uniquely placed to be better correspondents, as they have a first-hand perspective to local issues. Also, given their economic status, being a correspondent provides a viable livelihood opportunity that is critical. Jessica taps into the unique potential of marginalized citizens by equipping them with the tools of empathy and skills of articulation. She pushes them to go beyond their own stories and become voices of their communities.
To sustain community interest in these stories over a prolonged period, Jessica believes that community producers have to play a role beyond collecting stories. Unlike mainstream media correspondents who come from the outside, community producers are rooted to the communities and have to ensure that community members see value in sharing their stories. Consequently, it becomes imperative for community producers to play a catalytic role in translating stories into action. This kind of media that is both for and by communities becomes a powerful way to accelerate changemaking and community-led development. It gives communities constant access to someone who can tell their story and facilitate dialogues among themselves.
Jessica is now actively distributing the videos, created by those who experience the issues firsthand, online and through partnerships with mainstream media and development agencies. For the first time in India, videos produced by communities on issues they determined important, have been aired on mainstream television media. This is not only bringing urban citizens closer to the realities of rural India but is also influencing mainstream media on the issues and perspectives of marginalized communities.
In the recent past, there has been a lot of effort to increase access to information to rural and marginalized people. However, the framework to include the voices of poor and marginalized communities in mainstream media is missing. Most mainstream media companies have a limited number of stringers, most of who are situated in urban areas. In journalism, a stringer is a type of freelance journalist or photographer who contributes reports or photos to a news organization on an ongoing basis but is paid individually for each piece of published or broadcast work. For instance, Press Trust of India, India’s premier news agency has only 500 stringers across the country. While there is a latent demand for content from rural areas, mainstream media is limited in its capacity to identify and maintain correspondents in remote areas. Although citizen journalism results in media being able to stream some content from marginalized communities, the content is not professionally structured or articulated. Stories that are narrated through cell phones / videos are often distorted and do not form a reliable pipeline of stories for the media.
As a result, in India and around the globe, the mainstream media is unable to tell stories of marginalized communities. A study published in September 2011 by the Economic and Political Weekly stated that India’s highest circulated English and Hindi dailies devote only about 2 percent of their total coverage to rural India’s issues, crises, and anxieties. Even when they source stories from rural areas, the perspective is that of an outsider. This typically results in only populist or sensational stories being covered. Issues that marginalized communities want to speak about, such as corruption, hunger, and discrimination remain without any representation in the media.
In a study called “Voices of the Poor” in 2002, the World Bank asked 20,000 people living on less than US$2 a day to identify the single greatest hurdle to their advancement, many place lack of voice, over food, shelter, and education. The poor lack a space to dialogue amongst each other and make their voices heard. For instance, most people within a village are unable to discuss issues that affect them. This limits their ability to recognize that problems are shared amongst other community members or to make their needs known to authorities and the world at large in very concrete ways. Voices of communities are also largely absent even from the national and international development forums that determine how to assist them. Therefore, their knowledge or needs do not get to inform the decision-making that affects their lives.
Jessica is nurturing professional community producers so as to place someone in every district in India who has the capability of bringing out the stories that media should communicate.
Recognizing the power of videos to overcome language and literacy barriers, Jessica created Video Volunteers (VV), which recruits and trains people from remote areas and marginalized communities to become community producers. VV partners with local COs to identify community members who are entrepreneurial and committed to social change. In particular, VV seeks out women, dalits, sexual minorities, and people below the poverty line to become community producers. The producers undergo a rigorous two-week residential training program where they learn the basics of video journalism, including how to frame and articulate issues, be accurate and ethical. Producers are pushed to draw from their personal experiences and articulate their opinions on their own surroundings. VV emphasizes the need to make personal connections to their stories and reflect on what their community means to them. During the course of training, they are also taught to shoot short, three-minute videos.
Once trained, the producers return to their villages with a basic camera and begin shooting stories that they believe need to be told. Every community producer has a mentor in VV, who guides him or her through the whole process. They produce between one and four videos a month, depending on whether this is their only source of income. After they shoot the video, the producers mail the footage to VV’s central office and receive a payment of Rs. 1,500 per video made.
VV edits the video, inserts sub-titles and facilitates its distribution by posting them on its website and selling them to mainstream media. For instance, VV’s partnered with one of India’s leading news channels NewsX who produced a 30 minute, 13-part series called ‘Speak Out India’ that comprised entirely of content produced by the community producers, strung together with their own anchor pieces. VV has also begun to transcribe each video into an article so that it can be distributed in print form. As a way to spread the idea of community media and bring greater exposure to the issues, Jessica plans to launch VV “Feature Service” to distribute articles under the heading, IndiaUnheard to news agencies free of cost. Each video is also distributed through social media, YouTube and other online journalism sites to bridge the digital divide between the urban and rural population.
While most content is created through the ‘pull-mechanism’ where producers determine what they want to speak about, VV also employs the ‘push–mechanism from time to time, where producers are commissioned to create videos around a theme. Leveraging its ‘live access to communities’, VV partners with national and international development agencies to help them understand how communities perceive particular issues. For instance, VV partnered with Red Cross on the “Hunger Project,’ where producers shot videos on what hunger meant to them. These videos were not only screened by Red Cross, but also helped Red Cross obtain a bottom up perspective to the issue.
VV also sends the video back to the producer who is encouraged to screen it in villages by showing it on projectors or DVDs. Sometimes producers innovate by uploading the videos into pirated music CDs or cell phones. Recognizing that communities will lose interest in narrating their stories if they do not see any value in the media, VV saw it essential for community producers to go beyond merely ‘informing’ to actively ‘engaging’. It therefore mandates that every producer create at least three impact videos a year; videos that capture how a previous video catalyzed changemaking.
Community producers screen videos and rally people around issues raised. Depending on the issue, they also engage village leaders and appropriate local authorities. VV has recorded more than 17,000 people taking action after seeing their videos bringing direct benefit to more than 650,000 people. The videos have catalyzed toilets to be built, ration cards to be issued, demoting teachers who collected bribes, and homosexuals organizing themselves, among other issues. VV also incentivizes impact by paying producers Rs. 5,000 for each ‘impact video’ produced compared to Rs. 1,500 for a regular video. Such impact maintains the communities continued faith in the power of media and enables producers to source stories continuously from the community.
More importantly, the camera and the process of articulating issues, pushes producers to reflect on issues faced by them and their communities and triggers a personal transformative experience. As a result of this process, the community producers transform into leaders and become beacons for the village. VV continues to have annual training programs that develop the critical thinking skills of community producers.
Jessica’s goal is to recruit and train one Community Producer in each of India’s 645 districts. To scale, she plans to partner with Journalism schools to introduce community media classes. She intends to incentivize students to train communities, by bringing in media partners who will air content. Jessica also intends to actively sell content to PTI and other news agencies to eventually become a rural version of the Associated Press.
Jessica grew up in New York and went to a progressive school that opened her eyes to feminism and other social movements at a very young age. Always curious about the history and culture of other countries, she completed her undergraduate degree in France and graduate degree in Arts and History from Oxford, United Kingdom.
Jessica’s first experience in media was at the age of 18 during her summer internship with a local 24-hour news channel in New York City. Working as an assistant to a 5 a.m. reporter, she witnessed a mother of a victim of a drug shooting narrate how her son was killed for $50 of crack.
Although the site of this murder was just 20 minutes from her house, Jessica had never seen anything like this before. From that day on, working with media was always more than a career for Jessica. For her, it became a tool to get a clearer picture of the world she lived in and about being an informed citizen.
Upon completing her graduation, she joined reputed news channels such as CNN and Fox News. However, she found herself opposed to the polarizing nature of their content. Rooted to the belief that media must provide the space for people to disagree and find common ground, she moved to making documentaries at a crime and justice channel called Court TV. For one and a half years, she covered stories on possible innocent people on death row and on the brutal environment within prisons. Here, she became passionately connected to her work and the issues she covered.
However, soon after 9/11, the focus of the channel became essentially about celebrating police and armed forces that protected the American border. Jessica was shocked that America saw the world from only its own perspective. Although the world was becoming more interconnected, the media in the most powerful country in the world was making its citizens totally uninformed about realities abroad.
Disillusioned by mainstream media, she began asking what could correct this problem. It was at this time that video-journalism was becoming popular. Inexpensive cameras and editing systems were allowing just one person to put together a whole program. Ironically, until this point in her career as a media person, Jessica had not held a camera. She learned the camera techniques and felt deeply empowered by the control she had to create videos and communicate her views.
To inform herself of realities outside America, she came to India in 2002 as a Fellow of the American India Foundation for a nine-month volunteering experience with the Self Employed Women’s Association. At SEWA, she trained women to create videos and was deeply inspired by their spirit and collective power. While trying to organize an interview, Jessica recollects women emphasizing the fact since they live within the communities they would be best to tell the story. This made Jessica reflect on how stories could be different if they were narrated by a varied group of people. She saw the limitation on outsiders to tell a story completely and felt it would be far more powerful to enable people to tell their own stories.
Realizing that communities could go well beyond developing only technical skills to produce videos and communicating the script provided by the organization, she was determined to develop critical thinking skills among communities to craft their perspectives and narrate their stories. Seeing the opportunity to bring diversity in media by helping the under-represented make their own media, she launched Video Volunteers together with K. Stalin, a film maker and media activist.
They began by helping COs set up Community Video Units where trained producers would shoot, edit and produce documentaries to be screened within their communities. However, Jessica and Stalin soon realized that the model had its limitations. It was expensive and relied extensively on the COs to make it a success. Also, the format of the videos was such that it could not be used outside the communities. Learning from this experience, they redesigned the initiative as a systems-changing network of rural stringers who create videos that can be distributed to the world at-large.