So, you’ve been selected for our Sinelizwi programme and you want to know what to do next. Step off the side-lines and get going! Knowledge is power. Citizen journalism is making sure people know what is happening in their community and how they can take constructive action. It is about creating or writing the news, and helping get the word out on issues that are important to the community.

Rather than relying on campaign literature or word of mouth, citizen journalists have the power to fill the information gap in a responsible way, to prevent vital news from slipping through the cracks. For citizens to be fully engaged and able to constructively participate in their government, they must also be an informed citizenry.

Step 1: Pick your beat

Write about something you’re interested in and familiar with. This could be anything or anyone. For example, cover local agricultural events or government, or even topics like public education, the arts, local restaurants, sports, music. The most important thing is that you care about it. Rather than covering specific events or government entities, you could interview community members, like the leaders of the local non-profits, small business owners or residents. Being able to share their stories will help bring the community together and educate people on the community’s needs.

Step 2: Be a responsible citizen journalist

Be accurate. Use a note pad, cell phone or voice recorder, or even a video camera to take notes or record interviews. And always re-read your article to double check numbers and important facts. Be thorough. Interview all the stakeholders impacted to get the full story.

Be fair. It’s important not to show favouritism towards one side or another. At the same time, if someone is opposed to a certain proposal ask them what is their solution to the problem. This is very important, if someone is going to discredit a proposal, make them offer up a constructive alternative.

Be independent. Leave your partisanship at the door. This will help you build a larger audience and be seen as a credible news source.

Be objective. If you want to be read as a non-partisan, trusted news source, then you need to refrain from inserting your own opinion. To do this, we recommend you always use a “no blame approach.” This means not resorting to the blame game, but instead focusing on constructive solutions. And, if you want to earn reader’s trust, you need to remain objective and respectful.

Step 3: Start writing and keep writing

Remember, every story should cover the five W’s and an H: who, what, where, when, why and how. Before publishing an article or blog post, reread your piece to make sure each of these questions are answered.

Lead with your most important information. Think big numbers and the big picture. Pick your juiciest piece of news and lead with it.  Your story can be a few sentences or 1 000 words. On the internet there are no word limits, so your stories can be a brief or extensive as you like.  Write like you would want to read it in print. These days it is not uncommon for traditional print publications to run an online piece, so it is important to be aware that whatever you write might show up in other places. Be timely. It’s important to report the news within a day or two, even when you don’t have as much information as you’d like, especially when proposals are advancing through local government. If you are publishing online, you can always post updates.

Step 4: Stick with it

The hardest part about being a citizen journalist is staying with it, which makes it all the more important that you are covering something you are passionate or knowledgeable about. Remember, you don’t have to be researching and writing every day to help keep your community informed. Whatever time you have to devote to reporting will be appreciated by your readers. Set up reminders on your calendar. Depending on your subject area and time, you can write monthly, weekly, or daily – whichever you choose, put reminders on your calendar so you don’t forget to write. Give yourself a deadline. Professional journalists have deadlines, so why shouldn’t you? Having a deadline is especially important if you are interested in writing about city council meetings or proposals to be voted on, where time is of the essence.

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