During Egypt’s January 25th revolution Mahamad El Tanahy was in Tahrir Square keeping up to date on events in the area through Twitter. In New York City, Sarah O. Wali was busy hunting down social media related to the uprising for her employer, ABC News.
From their respective vantage points, both El Tanahy, an IT specialist and entrepreneur, and Wali, a journalist, saw the potential of social media in both driving events and keeping the public informed.
In April, El Tanahy and Wali launched the beta version of website CitJo. The online platform allows citizen journalists to share and monetize their content by posting photos and videos to twitter with the hashtag #CitJo. The citizen journalist can then price the content or grant a Creative Commons license. Content can also be uploaded directly to the platform.
Media companies can then browse or search for content they wish to purchase to strengthen their own reporting.
CitJo prioritizes coverage of the Middle East, currently focusing on events in Egypt, explains El Tanahy who is the company's Managing Director.
“The Middle East is where everything is happening at the moment,” he explains.
At the same time, CitJo aims attract media companies from around the world to purchase the content.
“We aim to be one of the major sources of news, whether it’s politics, whether it’s science and tech,” says El Tanahy. “Providing quality photos and videos of stories that are happening at the moment, that’s really our core focus.”
Social media and citizen journalism have played a vital role in the uprisings currently sweeping the Middle East and have become an integral component of news coverage.
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“It’s only going to develop the mainstream media more,” says Wali, CitJo's Product & Operations Manager, of social media. “Before you could have the mainstream media develop stories the way that they saw fit. They would write about whatever they wanted, whatever they saw. Now we have an extra source and so they’re being forced to watch themselves.”
During the January 25th revolution, Wali points out, the Egyptian state media refused to report the truth of events in Tahrir Square, but content on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube was keeping the Egyptian public informed.
Despite its journalistic value, the use of social media has presented many challenges to traditional media companies. Videos, photographs and written accounts posted on social media may provide firsthand accounts from the heart of events, but often it is difficult to find appropriate, verifiable and high quality content.
“Citizen journalism is just starting,” explains Wali. “Back in 2006, we didn’t have Twitter. This is all a very new phenomenon for us, so we’re all kind of tripping our way through it, but the smart thing to do as journalists is to utilize the information that is coming out that is verifiable, and that’s what we’re trying to do, sift through all this noise.”
CitJo takes several measures to give media companies easy access to high quality, verified content that suits their needs and avoids the pitfalls typical of citizen journalism.
A simply designed browsing page is accompanied by a filter that allows clients to search for specific content by keywords, category, country and other criteria.
CitJo works closely with citizen journalists to ensure the quality and authenticity of their content. After content is submitted, CitJo contacts the citizen journalist to quiz the submitter on the events that occurred. CitJo then compares the content with reports coming out of traditional media and other social media content. No story is considered valid if it comes from only one source.
In addition, CitJo is working with several NGOs to help citizen journalists improve the quality of their content. CitJo works with three categories of citizen journalism: the contributor is anyone who has content to share, the activist is a citizen journalist that wishes to raise awareness of a specific cause, and the freelancer is a journalist who would like to gain exposure to a larger clientele.
Through CitJo, El Tanahy and Wali also hope to remedy global perceptions of the Middle East. Wali points to the phenomenon of “parachute journalists”, who come to the Middle East from abroad without any real understanding of the culture, language or people. By providing first-hand accounts and non-political categories such as culture and travel & leisure, the CitJo founders hope to expose global audiences to all aspects of life in the region.
“There are stories that are happening on a day to day basis that people everywhere in the world can really connect with,” says Wali.