Knight Fellow Links Citizen Journalists in the Philippines' Poorest Provinces with Top Investigative Reporters

Dec 152009
  • Knight International Journalism Fellow Alex Tizon discusses how "crowd sourcing" will be used to monitor rural poverty in the Philippines at the launch of Suriin Ang Kahirapan.

Knight International Journalism Fellow Alex Tizon and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) have launched Suriin Ang Kahirapan (Audit of Poverty), a “crowd-sourcing” project that will enable a team of investigative journalists to work with citizen journalists in the country's poorest regions ahead of the country's 2010 national elections.

The project will train residents – including local reporters and broadcasters – in five provinces of the Philippines to monitor the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs and provide regular on-the-ground reports that will be published by PCIJ and national media.

“Who better to tell us what is really going on in these remote places than the people who live there?” asked Tizon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a Filipino-American. Tizon began his yearlong Knight International Journalism Fellowship in May.

The project aims to engage the most disenfranchised Filipinos in the provinces and encourage them to become more involved in their own governance. Suriin also is designed to get a more accurate picture of the causes of rural poverty so that lawmakers in Manila will know how to address the problem. The poverty rate in these five provinces ranges from 52 percent to 65 percent. For these people – many living on less than $2 a day – survival is a daily struggle.

One of the Suriin project’s innovations is to use “crowd sourcing” as the primary way to find out how poverty is affecting Filipinos in the provinces. In traditional journalism, reporters come up with story ideas and then gather information from various sources. “Crowd sourcing” refers to the practice of encouraging stories to originate from average people.

PCIJ is traveling to each of the five provinces to train volunteers – teachers, students, radio broadcasters and non-governmental workers – to become citizen journalists. They will monitor government poverty programs, gather and organize information and chronicle events in their communities. These “partners” will then feed their reports to PCIJ. With the help of the local reporters, PCIJ will develop the reports into stories that will be posted on the new Suriin Ang Kahirapan website. The site features profiles of each province. It also will be a platform for chats between PCIJ and its citizen-journalist partners. PCIJ’s syndication agreements with major media mean the reports from the provinces will run in newspapers and broadcast stations all over the country, for the first time giving the concerns of rural residents a national profile.

That will be especially important during the campaign for the 2010 presidential and legislative elections. Participants in the project will ask candidates to how they will deal with issues such as chronic unemployment and a dysfunctional health-care system and hold them accountable for their promises to address those problems.

Rural Filipinos have long felt disconnected from and ignored by powerbrokers in Manila. “Our voices have been like howls in the wilderness. …. Suriin can play a big role in affecting life here,” said Ram Sison, an associate editor of the Masbate Weekly Post. Masbate, an island in the country’s central region, is one of the target provinces. The other four – Agusan del Sur, Maguindanao, Surigao del Norte and Zamboanga del Norte – are in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines.

“When Suriin citizen journalists tell their stories, they’ll have the largest audience possible in the Philippines,” Tizon said. “They’ll have the opportunity, maybe for the first time in their lives, to wield enormous power.”

Tizon, who has written extensively on poverty issues in the United States, is providing overall guidance on the project. He also is helping train rural residents and journalists. Rowena “Weng” Paraan, the PCIJ staffer in charge of Suriin, is a veteran journalist and researcher.

The Suriin project was made possible by a grant from the Philippines Australian Community Assistance Program.