Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The making of a Citizen Journalist

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Citizen journalism is a bit of a buzzword, but behind the buzz are people; engaged, frustrated, curious, nervous people. What does the journey from bystander to citizen journalist look like from the inside?

My name is Michelle. I am many things to many people, including, among others, a citizen of Australia, a wife and a mother. I am not a journalist by trade, I’m an accountant. I am a relatively early adopter of social media, I signed up to Facebook in 2007 and Twitter in early 2009. I use both quite a lot, but I probably didn’t really discuss politics on Twitter until after Julia Gillard became Prime Minister and we approached the 2010 election. I recall following that election quite extensively and relying on Twitter to link me to interesting articles and blogs.

I have never been a member of a political party, indeed I deliberately shied away from them. I recall my Dad telling me he was thinking of joining the ALP several years ago and I was shocked and wondered why he would do that. It wasn’t any opposition to the ALP per se; it was the thought of being a part of the political machine that I found odd and disturbing.

I studied a bit of politics at school and university, but it wasn’t my main focus.

I tell you all this because I’m trying to establish that, while I am not a professional or an expert, I have always had an interest in politics. I do my best to keep on top of what is happening and I get frustrated at the way so much of our politics in Australia is framed by the mainstream media. Reading blogs and online news sites was helping to inform me in ways the mainstream media never did. I would like that reach to go further out into our community.

Early in 2013 I started writing a blog. It wasn’t intended to be a political blog and I didn’t have huge ambitions, just a place to write some words when I felt the urgings beyond the 140 characters of Twitter.

Then, in June I watched the 7.30 report when Leigh Sales interviewed Craig Emerson. He was Minister for Trade at the time. I watched it in absolute frustration. It was a constant stream of leadership questions that were going around in circles. I tweeted my frustrations, as did others who were also watching. I decided to write a letter to Leigh Sales expressing my thoughts on her interview. I put the letter on my blog and linked to it from twitter.

It started getting retweets. My blog started getting hits. I went to bed quite satisfied that I had written something I was pleased with that was getting favourable reactions. The next day I watched as it was shared further on twitter and continued to get hits and continued to get comments. By the time I woke up on the second day when the hit count was in the thousands I was almost feeling sick. It was exhilarating but frightening. I felt I had hit a nerve and that was satisfying, but I also felt I had something that was out of control. I kept waiting for the trolls to come and spoil things. I’m not all that good with confrontation and I didn’t know if I could manage an attack. It never came. I did get the odd tweet having a go at me, but it was nothing compared to the praise and positive feedback. To this day it has just under 11,000 hits and 126 comments. Compared to everything else I have written, it has had huge reach.

A week or so later Julia Gillard was ousted as leader of the ALP and Prime Minister of Australia. I had written a piece on my thoughts on her becoming Prime Minister and then a few days later I wrote my thoughts on her being ousted. To this day I still cannot believe the events of that week and in particular June 26, 2013.

I guess Margo Kingston saw one or more of my blog posts of that time as she contacted me via Twitter asking if I’d like to cover the 2013 election as a citizen journalist in Corangamite for her site Nofibs. At the time Corangamite was the most marginal seat in Australia, so we both knew it would receive a fair bit of attention.

While I was shopping a little while later Margo contacted me and asked if I had my first piece ready. I had it in my head but hadn’t put pen to paper, so to speak. Margo was offering me an out. She had someone else who was available to cover Corangamite. I was so disappointed. I felt I’d blown my chance by not getting something to her sooner. I promised to have something to her ASAP and suggested that perhaps both of us could cover Corangamite. Scott Barnes, a journalist from Colac, went on to write a piece about campaign tactics in Corangamite.

I went straight home and put those words from my head onto paper and emailed my piece through. I was like a school kid waiting an exam result as I waited to see if it was okay and if it would be published. It took a few days, but it appeared. It was the first time I’d had something published in my full name on a website like this. Even my own blog only has my first name and I’d chosen not to put my surname on my Twitter account. At the time I had a government related employer. I had just decided that pseudo anonymity worked better for me. Now, here I was with my name alongside my words. It was small time citizen journalism, but I was thrilled.

My next plan was to interview the candidates. At that stage only a handful had declared, the Greens, ALP, Liberal, Sex Party and Palmer United Party candidates were all officially listed on the AEC website. I followed them on Twitter and Facebook. I didn’t know what my chances were of getting interviews with the ALP and Liberal candidates. For some reason I had it in my head that they may reserve their media requests for major outlets but I thought I had a chance with the smaller parties so I started there.

I contacted Lloyd Davies from the Greens. I made a time and met him during my lunch break. Everything about this was new to me. I practised recording into my iPhone and typed out some questions on a variety of topics. My heart would start beating very fast just thinking about the interview. I sent Margot messages asking if it was normal to be nervous and she assured me it was. When the time came it went really well. It probably helped that Lloyd was such a nice guy. He was curious about what I was doing and answered the questions honestly and passionately. When I had finished the questions I had prepared I thanked him and stopped recording. We continued chatting. Half an hour later we were still chatting and I was almost sad I hadn’t kept recording.

To give you a glimpse into the glamorous world of citizen journalism, that night you would have found me stretched out on my bed with a notepad and pencil as I listened to the recording in 10 second snippets while I transcribed every word. It was painstaking. I then had to type it all up. When I was done I sent it through to Margo for publishing and a few days later it was up on the website… My first interview.

In the meantime I had been trying to organise a time with Jayden Millard from the Australian Sex Party. I was intimidated by the name of the party. I did a bit of research to help me prepare for the interview and started to think they were doing themselves a disservice with their name. I’m sure there are many others like me who thought a Sex Party was all about sex. I didn’t dare Google it on my work computer.

Jayden was studying in Melbourne while running his campaign. It was tricky to confirm a time but we managed it. He too was honest and passionate. He told me about the great support group around him who were helping him and when he teared up talking about them I was struck by how much a political campaign can impact a person and their family. Our interview was informative. I learnt more about the Sex Party as a result. He was a fast talker… Transcribing took a while but I had learnt from my previous interview to transcribe straight into the computer. It took out one layer of the process.

After publishing my opening piece for nofibs I had been told about a Candidates forum on Climate Change in Torquay, so I made arrangements to attend. This was another first for me; attending a pre-election forum. By this stage more candidates had announced for Corangamite. I think we were up to 7 and I was wondering if I'd get to them all.

Buddy Rojek, the Palmer United party candidate, had made his presence known on Twitter and Facebook. His posts were random and difficult to follow and I wondered if his social media strategy was sound. I attempted to contact him via Twitter to tee up a time before the forum in Torquay. As it turns out a flyer hit the news about his election night party and he was front page news in the Geelong Advertiser on the day of the forum. I could tell he was being sought by media outlets and wondered if my interview with him would go ahead.

I took my 14 year old daughter with me to the forum. It was good for my confidence to have the moral support of someone with me. It was also an interesting chance for her to see democracy in action and to appreciate the privilege we have of living in a country like Australia where people can disagree, yet discuss things civilly. One attendee at the forum stood up and commented that he had recently returned from Africa where the idea of a panel of candidates for election sitting alongside each other discussing political matters was almost inconceivable. It was a sobering reminder of how fortunate we are.

At the conclusion of the forum I approached Buddy. He told me he was having a media blackout but I managed to convince him to chat to me. He wanted me to agree to not publish my recording, which I did. I actually encouraged him to record himself making that request before we started. I sat alongside him with my iPhone on the palm of my hand as he spoke. All around us people at the forum were mingling and chatting to the other candidates. It felt very unusual. I asked him questions and let him talk. I had told Margo earlier in the day that I was quite nervous given the media events of the day involving him and her advice was to just let him talk. I didn’t want to talk about his controversial party too much. I needed to address it, and I did, but I also wanted to know about his policies. I have been critical in the past of journalists who hone in on a side issue and don’t address policy and I didn’t want to be guilty of that sin.

At the end of the interview Buddy said he was fine with what he (and I) had said and I could publish anything. When my piece was published, which was a transcript of the interview, my questions and his answers, he was thrilled. I guess we all see things differently.

I then decided to go along to the Geelong Advertiser debate between Darren Cheeseman (ALP) and Sarah Henderson (Liberal). Talk about immersing myself in the election!

When I was able to confirm that I could organise my kids and their activities and actually make the debate (5pm on a week night was a tricky time-slot ...I wonder who thought of that? Obviously not a parent) I contacted Darren Cheeseman's office to see if I could interview him post-debate. I needed to maximise my time. If I was going to an event I may as well kill two birds with one stone. The media adviser was non committal. When I arrived at the debate I spotted him up and approached him. I'd met him at an event at my kids’ school so I knew who he was. He was still a little unsure but I was hopeful. I introduced myself to Sarah and told her I would approach her office in the next week to organise a time for a brief interview. I didn't get an enthusiastic reply but was hopeful.

As an aside, in the midst of all this going on I accepted a voluntary redundancy from my employer. I was attending outplacement interviews and trying to determine my future career and work out my final weeks of employment. I became aware of a graduate diploma of primary teaching and after I confirmed I was eligible to apply commenced the application process, which was extensive. I also have 3 kids who have numerous activities, a husband who commutes to Melbourne (from Geelong), a household to maintain, a dog to walk, friends and family to see and a life to live. I was in this election up to my neck, and actually enjoying it, but it was a juggling act to keep on top of everything.

As for the debate, it was fiery. Sarah made some derogatory personal comments about Darren. At one stage, it got so bad that there was a collective gasp from the audience. Darren played a pretty straight bat, targeting Abbott rather than Sarah herself. Sarah frequently wanted an additional say after her time was up and the crowd got a little agitated when this happened more than once. She was a strong media performer and spoke clearly and strongly. Her years as an ABC journalist had helped her in this regard. The Geelong Advertiser report on the debate is here. I did my best to live tweet the event. It’s a tough job to listen and type and condense to 140 characters, remembering to add the hashtag and just glean the relevant bits of information.

I had submitted a question prior to the debate and it was selected to be asked. The question was to Sarah. In all of my research I hadn’t found any information about her stand on marriage equality. As there had been some talk that the Liberal party may allow a conscience vote on the issue after the election I thought it appropriate that the voters knew her position ahead of time. She gave a vague non-committal answer, suggesting she would consult the electorate when it came up. Darren confirmed his position in favour of marriage equality. I already knew that he was one of the members who had voted in favour of the unsuccessful marriage equality bill that had previously been brought to Parliament.

A friend on Twitter used a program to collect all of my tweets from the night. The link to that is here.

After the debate the media adviser approached me to see if I wanted the interview with Darren straight away. It was a pleasant surprise to not have to fight for it. We stood to one side of the hall and I recorded the interview for about 15 minutes. As Darren was the sitting Member of Parliament I asked him questions related to being the incumbent and also challenged him on his public support for Kevin Rudd over Julia Gillard prior to the leadership decision of June 26. I was conscious of a crowd milling behind me, people eager to put their concerns to him. When I finalised the chat and asked one of them to take a photo, I left him to his constituents.

The first thing I had noticed about Darren up close was that he looked exhausted, his eyes were quite red. He was enthusiastic and fighting as a Labor person desperate to retain his seat, but I suddenly realised the toll an election campaign must take on people and their families. Sure, they're doing it by choice but, what a tough slog! He'd been up since dawn to attend a rally with the Prime Minister and then campaigned all day with the PM, which I imagine is quite stressful with all the bigwig media trailing behind, then a fiery debate and an interview with a citizen journo. This was then followed by chats with some voters whose issue means so much to them that they turn up in person to put it to their local member. I thought of his wife and young kids, and all the partners and kids and parents and friends of the other candidates.

So, when nominees for the election closed it turned out Corangamite had twelve candidates. Twelve! I knew I was never going to get to them all. However, I really wanted to interview Sarah Henderson. She was in front in the polls and in all likelihood was going to be the next member for Corangamite, so I persisted. I played tag with her office, calling when I saw her car there. I was emailing her and suggesting I would meet her out and about while she mingled with voters. I was willing to take any type of interview I could get. A week out from the election it felt like time was running out.

After work one day, I was sitting on my couch, checking my emails to see if Sarah had got back to me and having a quick look at Facebook. I saw a post on a friend’s Facebook featuring a picture of a guy out the front of Sarah's office with a sign saying 'Tony Abbott is a tool'. I'd seen pictures of him elsewhere so I asked my friend if he was there right now. I jumped in the car and headed up to her office. I can’t imagine having the courage to do that prior to this project. I would have scrolled right on past that photo, and here I was in my car en route to the site to see what his protest was all about. My heart was thumping again. I half expected him to tell me where to go.

I approached him and asked him if I could have a chat about his protest. He was friendly and articulate and more than happy to chat to me. I came home and wrote it up and sent it into nofibs. It was up within about an hour or so. It was a bit heady. It was just a minor human interest story but I felt invigorated by the experience of seeing a story opportunity, acting on it, following through and writing it up and then seeing it in print. It was different to the interviews with the candidates and I'm glad I did it. Margo has since told me it was my most popular story.

I also wrote up a story following the 2nd Leaders debate about undecided voters. I had experimented with surveying my Facebook friends by asking if they had decided how they were voting. That story is here. I guess it's totally out there that I'm a politics nerd... I'm pretty sure that not everyone in my life knew that before. I didn't keep it a secret, I just didn't advertise it. It's been weird to have that side of me out there to all the various groups I interact with.

So a week out from the election and no interview in sight with Sarah I received a phone call from her. I was dirty and sweaty. My kids’ school had held a working bee to spruce the place up in readiness for the election and lots of community visitors coming through the school. When I realised it was her I was wondering how much notice she was going to give me for this interview and would I have time for a quick shower.

I offered to meet her somewhere along her campaign trail but she suggested she was too busy one week out from the election and didn't think it would work while she was meeting voters. Spying my husband’s phone out of the corner of my eye I then offered to record an interview over the phone and that is what we did. I put my phone on speaker and recorded onto my husband’s phone. It probably worked out best that I could conduct the interview in the privacy of my own home with no vision. I wonder if Emma Alberici ever does an interview with a politician like that; dirty, smelly, talking into one iPhone, recording on another. I’m thinking it’s unlikely.

I was keen to focus some of my questions on policy that distinguished the Liberal Party from the Labor party and these included Direct Action (Climate Change), Paid Parental Leave (PPL) and the NBN. Unfortunately she still managed to refer to Labor in her replies in those three areas. I was even accused of having a negative tone to my questions. That stung a little but I honestly think I was just trying to extract detail about policy and especially the difference in Liberal and Labor policy. It was the first time I’d been questioned about my questions. I ended up transcribing the interview exactly as it occurred, which is what I did with all of my interviews.

It's so easy to judge politicians, or the people who want to be politicians, but they're human. Putting themselves out there requires a thick skin and strong support. Everyone has an opinion and it seems some will say it to their face, some will say it from behind a keyboard. I respect them all enormously.

I think I'll look back on this election in such a different way to others. It's been a unique experience and has given me a far greater insight into how things happen. I managed to get interviews with the two major party candidates who fought it out for the seat, plus the next three highest vote getters of the twelve who contested the seat, so I'm pleased with that. I hope my pieces on nofibs were of some use to the people of Corangamite, and gave the wider Australian community a glimpse into our choices in this electorate.

I learnt so much and think some of the things I picked up as a citizen journalist will help in my upcoming studies and my future career. I certainly see the opportunities for citizen journalism to sit alongside mainstream journalism as a credible alternate and look forward to seeing where it goes in future elections and campaigns.

Michelle Primmer

Michelle Primmer is a blogger and citizen journalist.

Follow her on twitter @PrimMich