#syrien200: a multiplatform, multilingual tour de force of story telling

One of the biggest stories of the decade so far has been and continues to be the European refugee crisis, and particularly the exodus of millions of Syrians from a country decimated by war.

We all remember the harrowing image of little Alan Kurdi’s limp body on a tourist beach, then clutched to the chest of a Turkish police officer who retrieves him from the sea. The boy had drowned with his mother and sister while trying to cross a fierce sea to a new life. He became the human face of a tragedy affecting a generation of families.

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media research study organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees looked at how the refugee crisis was being portrayed in five countries: Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden and the UK.

The study revealed that Swedish media was the most positive in its coverage of refugees and asylum seekers…while the UK media was generally the most negative.

One of the projects that emerged from Sweden was called #syrien200. It represented six months of work by an investigative team of data journalists, researchers and producers at svt, a Swedish national broadcaster.

Together they interviewed 200 men and women who had made the journey from Syria and found refuge in Sweden.

It doesn’t have the production complexities of the masterful Snowfall project by the New York Times nor is the writer acting as commentator, as is the case in many of the inspiring works of journalism showcased on Medium by Josh Stearns, associate director at The Democracy Fund, in this recent round-up article.

What I particularly enjoy is that the producers of the project do not seek to impose their opinions or anyone else’s — they simply act as a portal through which a group of people can share their experiences.

In the #syrien200 project, every participant has the opportunity to tell a personal story. Using their native tongue (usually Arabic) each interviewee talks of their life so far, including their journey from Syria and their new home in Sweden.

I think it is a brilliant example of the power of long form, multiplatform storytelling, exceptionally rich in Character, Setting and Movement.

As Paul Bradshaw, leader of the MA in multiplatform and mobile journalism course at Birmingham City University, outlines here, it’s vital for any journalist planning a new story to work out first who are the characters and what are the settings.

In this example, the main CHARACTERS are the refugees themselves. The production team would have considered whether to bring in additional characters — refugee support workers, government officials, immigration policy makers, local residents, and a multitude of others. But instead they decided to focus on these principal characters and give only them a voice.

Their stories are told in text but additionally, speaking to an off screen interviewer, each of the 200 people share intimate moments of sadness, desperation, uncertainty and happiness. We see them and hear them, unfiltered.

Fadi, 44, has sad tears in his eyes as he talks of his two year old daughter, still in Syria and communicating with him via messages and phone calls, who is waiting and praying for her papa to arrange their reunion. He is in turn working desperately to enable them to to join him in Sweden.

“She asks me all the time, dad, when will we meet?” He is worried he has no answer for her.

Each of the 200 people featured is a separate character with a unique story but they are all in some respects a single character — the displaced refugee, far from home, trying to make the best of a new life in a foreign land.

A range of SETTINGS (or ‘umwelt’, meaning environment or the world around the characters) open up as each character tells their story — from tranquil pre-war Syria, to rooms of torture, to desperate escapes across oceans and mountains.

Some are specific — for example, being among a crush of desperate people inside a lorry, or the strong smell of jasmine.

We learn of each character’s physical journeys, some more dramatic than others.

Buthayanya crossed five countries with her children, on foot and by bus and boat, to reach Sweden.

Hind, from Damascus, says leaving her home was the most difficult thing she had ever done.

She writes about her previous life, her journey to Sweden and her wish that one day, when the war is over: “I will walk around on streets that are thousands of years old, and smell the scent of jasmine again.”

Abdel, a gay man who had denounced Islam, was in double jeopardy while in Syria, for his sexuality and his religious views. The story he weaves is one of leaving behind intolerance and hatred and finding a place of acceptance.

The project touches upon MOVEMENT in a vast range of ways — physical movement from place to place but also the psychological conflict and dramatic switch from a life of peace and safety to one of danger and risk and, in most cases, back again.

Inevitably, it also confronts the underlying political issues around immigration and refugees, particularly highlighting incidents of racism and being unwelcome.

All of this is set against the backdrop of the continuing war and the ever present dangers facing relatives still in Syria.

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, rich in drama and compassion. Every story is different and it makes the viewer/reader want to find out more.

Creating the stories in Arabic, Swedish and English ensures that as wide an audience as possible can fully engage with the characters and use these experiences in other ways, including as evidence for other research or in learning about the reality of life for refugees in Sweden and elsewhere.

After reading and listening to the stories, the question now is “what happened to them?” Was Fadi reunited with his young daughter? Has Abdel found love in Sweden? Has Hind managed to move out of her cramped flat?

It would be fascinating to find out and continue to share their journeys.


Playing around with free content creating apps


TEN-REASONS on Biteable.

I love the great apps that give opportunities to develop ideas and tell stories in different ways, without breaking the bank. Here’s one I made earlier using app.biteable.com – it’s been created as a test, hence the inclusion of watermarked images and some stock end footage – for professional usage I would sort out these elements and add in bespoke imagery. This was made with the free option but the upgrade only costs $99 a year, removing watermarks and allowing downloading to use in media releases, on websites and on apps other than Facebook and twitter. One to play around with and certainly one to consider adding to the armoury.

My current favourite tool is shorthand.com/social the brilliant free storytelling app from shorthand. I’ve used it this week to share a story about the first year in Worcestershire for a group of Syrian refugee families. You can view it here:


My journey: next steps in mobile video making

For anyone following my adventures in #mojo and video story telling so far (hello Mum!) I’ve reached something of a milestone.

I’ve posted the first four parts of my journey from virgin to slightly less amateurish film-maker.

My most recent experiences – live coverage of  Worcestershire Skills Show 2017 – included a series of short videos, a longer video for internal use, regular tweets and Facebook summary, which I link to here (youtube)…and here (Twitter Moments).



Feel free though to share your observations if want to highlight any of the many areas for improvement!

The art of #mojo, or mobile journalism, is my favourite format for story telling. Done well, the combination of words, moving pictures, sounds, captions and, sometimes, music can be a wonderful way to capture voices and experiences in ways that can be shared across multiple platforms.

I’ve spent time studying proponents of the art, seeking out examples of excellent practice, and having a go at creating my own pieces of #mojo, both externally and inside my workplace.

I’ve attended a workshop led by #mojo proponent Stephen R Quinn and created pieces of content of my own in different settings – also detailed in a previous blog on this site.

I’ve since devised a long list of video and audio content that I would like to create either as a council content creator or as an independent journalist, depending on the geographical location and interest.

These range from vox pops to intimate interviews, live event coverage to behind the scenes stories about local democracy in action.

Already under way is a series of interviews with young people in care settings, as part of a project to give voice to children who might otherwise remain in the shadows.

I want to do more of this…telling the stories of individuals in my community through video, audio, words and images. I will also seek to show how they form part of a wider picture through infographics, maps and data, including some historical reflection.

I hope by telling these ‘inside stories’ I can give voice to people who are often subject to stereotypes, or lack of understanding, or whose voices tend to get drowned out by louder noises.

I intend to continue to chronicle my mojo journey here including, when I feel suitably qualified to do so, my own advice and tips. This will also include seeking out and establishing myself in a community of practice around #mojo.

Speaking of “community of practice”…my next blog details my attempts to make inroads into the community of public sector communicators, which has been a wholly positive experience which I could sum up in a simple phrase: “the kindness of strangers”.


Do local councils even need newspapers any more? – or, how public sector communicators are speaking directly to residents

I need to start with a confession which is hardly unique among journalists. When I was a young gun reporter and then worked on news desks around the country my attitude towards PR people was one of tolerance and something verging on pity.

Those poor schmucks, I thought, working for The Man and guarding secrets, while I performed a terrier-like public duty hunting down truth and corruption and being “at the heart of the community!”

Ha, pitiable fools! And they’ve probably got PR or, worse, marketing qualifications too…which as anyone knows means nothing when measured against an NCTJ badge.

I exaggerate, but not much.

Today, five years after my last foray into print media, I’m sitting in a local government communications department working as a “content creative”. It’s the kind of job title I’d probably have sneered at back then…but it succinctly summarises my role. I’m to be creative, and produce content, which tells the story of the council I work for, in ways that its residents and partners get to hear.

I’ve become one of “those schmucks” – and it’s not taken long for that early 90s naivety to be turned.

My enthusiasm for investigative journalism remains undimmed; I recognise and support that a good journalist can cut through waffle and data to get to the heart of a story; that newspapers can truly operate at the heart of the community they serve if they choose to, standing up for the unheard and the underdog against the powerful.

Councils need scrutiny, just as any organisations who hold power and money need it. So don’t confuse me with an anti-press naysayer.

But what I do see is that times are changing.

Over the past month or so I’ve spent time discovering what is described as “a community of practice”. This describes a gathering place for people with a common identity or skill, who come together to share advice and information, to judge and be judged.

I chose to seek out a community relevant to my new job – public sector communicators.

I did so in in part to engage with and tap into the knowledge and experience of new peers in councils across the UK to help me do my job better.

But I was also keen to test this idea: that the democracy deficit caused by the decline of traditional ‘legacy’ media is leaving opportunities for others to fill the gap.

I’m especially interested in whether public sector organisations are going to wilfully or inadvertently fill that gap by creating engaging and interesting content and reaching bigger audiences than ever.

The place I have spent most of my time hanging out and seeking views is a closed Facebook group. Entry is by virtue of being a public sector communicator currently working.

On the topic of whether councils need newspapers: the guy who set up the closed group puts it thus: “It’s no longer necessary to go through the priesthood of journalists to reach residents.”

And this, from the Local Government Association:

“Local government is already the most efficient, transparent and trusted part of the public sector.”

An Ipsos MORI poll, commissioned by the New Local Government Network (NLGN) in 2013, found that 79% of voters trust local councils to make important decisions about the future of local services.


So are councils stepping up to fill the gap? And should they?

And if they do, will newspaper publishers cry foul and demand intervention, in the way they have done with the BBC over its burgeoning website audiences?

Newspapers are in a battle for survival – but in public sector communicators they face a pretty formidable group of people who can be their ally or a tough competitor.

This has proved a popular topic, with lots of examples quoted about poor journalism, reporters with a sense of entitlement way above their actual ability to influence people, and acts not far short of betrayal. As it’s a closed group and space for people to speak without fear or favour, I won’t share comments here.

I’ve also found people desperate to defend journalists – many in public sector comms were once in those shoes, as was I.

This isn’t all I’ve discovered. I’ve also found new ways of thinking, shortcuts and quick wins, great tools and software…all thanks to a generous community of people who do not jealously guard their positives or disguise their negatives, but openly encourage and share.

My posts and queries have been wide-ranging; none have been treated with derision, all have triggered engagement and comments.

Thankfully among the advice seeking there is humour and brevity, like this one:

“Social media post of the day “Do I need a licence to keep a goat in my garden’. Still, I got to use Twitter’s new goat emoji in my reply, and now I know about goat keeping.”


What else have I been up to in order to extend my interactions with a community of practice? I’ve also updated my LinkedIn profile, posted and shared my blogs and others, and begun to engage with public sector communicators and those researching #mojo.

On Twitter I’ve followed new groups of people and engaged directly with them to seek advice and share experiences.

I also intend to attend conferences and events within the public sector communications community, while also continuing to produce news stories independently for Birmingham Eastside (if only to remind myself of the difference of being an embedded press officer and an independent journalist and to make sure I don’t confuse the two).




Winning trust: how councils are engaging with communities & residents in new ways

A new guide has been published by the team at the Local Government Association which highlights the need for councils to engage with their local communities to win trust and influence.


I wouldn’t usually quote a lengthy section from a guide I could simply link to, but the introduction sums up the current situation facing local government very succinctly:

“These are potentially daunting times for local government. Expectations are rising and budgets are getting smaller. Services are better, but trust in many institutions is falling.

“Communities are frequently more able and willing to step up, but they’re also less deferential, and when things go wrong, they come armed with the tools of judicial review, Freedom of Information requests and social media.

“In this context, a serious effort to involve and understand residents is more important than ever.

“Satisfaction with local government remains fairly high compared to other organisations, and this provides local authorities with both opportunity and responsibility.

“By grasping what people need and what they can do for themselves, authorities can work better with communities and be more efficient. By bringing people in on decision-making, councils can get decisions right, manage expectations and improve relationships with residents.”

It’s against this background that I have recently become part of a local government communications team. Employed as a content creative, my role is to help devise and drive content across a multitude of platforms.

On the face of it, the role is to put together content that promotes council activity, encourages interest in local democracy, informs and entertains across a range of media – video, audio, photos, text, infographics, and so on.

It’s about helping officers and councillors understand what content can be created, how to use it and how to measure its success.

There’s nothing much new in this – public sector comms officers have been doing all of this and more for some time, with varying levels of success.

But it’s also about helping officers and members understand why it’s important to shift resources away from feeding the local media machine towards more direct communication and engagement with residents; to speak direct, through owned channels, rather than focus so much on using an ‘interim’ to get messages across.

It’s about telling the stories of communities in action; about sharing great ideas; about getting people involved.

That’s why this new guide is so timely and useful.


As the guide states:

“There is no perfect council when it comes to engagement. There are stronger councils and weaker ones, for sure. Most councils have elements they’re content about and elements they’re less sure of.

“But the important thing is that most councils are now trying to move in the right direction towards a relationship of mutual trust and understanding with those they serve.”

It cites projects under way in four councils:

  • Hackney: “The council’s story is about how they are taking the work they have done to understand fully how residents feel about Hackney as a place, and using it to build rapport and engagement around some tough issues. They have been using creative digital techniques and innovative engagement approaches to develop the borough’s direction on schooling.”
  • Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA): Their story is about the role of councillors, staff, and engaging residents and communicating the core messages about devolution.
  • Staffordshire is a large county council. Its story is about using networks, assets and data to be a more responsive local authority – and about the use of community-based engagement activities to help develop quality insight to support this.


  • Harlow is a district council in Essex. Its story is about creating an organisational culture that local people feel is listening to them, including work to deliver channel shift in a way that includes residents and engages with local issues.

The project that really caught my eye was the Hackney project; particularly impressive is the research and engagement they carried out to kickstart it.

 Called ‘Hackney: A Place for Everyone’, they trialled new forms of engagement alongside traditional types.
They designed a range of activities to reach out to different groups and amplify their voices. Council staff attended more than 50 locations, including markets, train stations, festivals, health services and cultural events, to do this.
New techniques gave residents a chance to tell their stories on camera in the back of a specially-designed ‘I Love Hackney’ black taxi.

Bespoke engagement with hard-to-reach segments was developed to engage young black men, those with disabilities, those in temporary accommodation and the LGBT community.

Alongside these engagement approaches, a 1,000-sample representative survey was conducted and over 3,000 questionnaires returned.

Their findings, learning and brand provided a platform for future internal and external engagement.

I’m looking forward to learning more from colleagues around the country  over the coming months – and will continue to share examples of great practice here and elsewhere.


Using video to tell human interest stories: Part 4

In my previous blog I shared some of my fledgling examples of #mojo – telling stories using mobile video. Now you’ve seen my efforts, it’s only fair to share some of the much better examples that are out there which offer genuine inspiration.

The first is one of my favourite examples of story telling. Swedish TV channel SVT wanted to tell the story of Syrian refugees who had fled to Sweden in the search for a better life. I’ve included it here because at its heart are the simple mojo-style videos that capture the stories of each of 200 refugees.

Every one of them speaks in Arabic to camera, giving real resonance and emotion to their words. The project can be viewed here in its entirety in English (the words of each refugee were translated into Swedish and English).

Here is one example from the project, telling the story of Fadi, a father who left his young family behind to forge ahead to find a better place for them all. The backdrop is plain so nothing detracts from Fadi and his heart-rending words.


The project has inspired me to take a similar approach to telling the stories of refugees settling in my home community. I’m sure you can think of projects you could work up in a similar style, focussing on a wide array of story ideas.

I was fortunate to meet one of the project’s co-creators, TV journalist Linnea Heppling, during an event at the BBC Academy in London last year. Linnea is a data journalist who helped to bring to life the data elements of the stories, including tracing the refugees and their journeys from their homeland to Sweden, an incredibly arduous journey of triumph over adversity. She can be reached on Twitter @heppling

Another journalist who leads the #mojo revolution is not a #mojo in the way I’ve previously described the role. John Harris produces #mojo style videos, but with a camera operator in tow doing the filming.

But if you want an example of mojo in action, there are few better.  In this example here, Harris performs as a mojo, walking around Stoke on Trent just prior to the by-election, chatting to people he encountered, then cutting together the footage into a coherent 10 minute feature

Harris features in the footage more visibly than many other mojo creators – he has a clear political agenda to pursue and voices his position, while also giving others the opportunity to voice theirs. It is a conversation, not a monologue.

Harris created a series of videos in the same style ahead of the EU referendum, criss-crossing the country to capture the voices of people in working class communities.


Much of the footage could just as easily be captured on your smartphone. What is less easy to replicate is Harris’s mastery of interviewing, and his ability to encourage his subjects to speak with honesty.

Nick Garnett is another highly admired ‘mobile broadcaster’ and also a generous sharer of information. His website nickgarnett.co.uk is a must visit for anyone wanting to find out more about creating mojo stories on video and audio, and how to get them on air.

Since 2009 he’s only ever used an iPhone to record, edit and mix audio packages. He uses it to broadcast around 90% of his live pieces on radio. He uses it to edit VT footage and file it back to base and even uses it to broadcast live TV.

Some of the highlights of his worldwide mojo career include covering the refugee crisis during the war in Syria; live broadcasting from Paris after the Charlie Hebdo shootings; from Malta in the aftermath of the deaths of around 800 migrants lost in a boating accident in the Mediterranean in 2015; from Calais as the migrant crisis grew, including live TV from the roadside; and Tunisia after the attack on the beach at Sousse which killed 38 tourists.

A great blog post here for the BBC sums up a frantic 2015 for Nick as a travelling mojo.

Interestingly, despite these examples, research by Dr Adrian Hadland, from University of Stirling, found #mojo style content was still only rarely used by broadcasters…his research showed as little as 2% of broadcast news content was #mojo in style.

“It is being used in mainstream broadcasting quite sparsely. There are other areas like web broadcasting where it will be probably used much more and the potential is much greater. But it seems to me that it is really that it is print and online journalism where it is growing fastest and most progress is being made. I think it is important and it will continue to be important.”

His additional commentary suggests audiences expect a very high, quality of images when viewing broadcast news (especially if viewing on a giant screen or in HD or 4k) which #mojo may not always fulfil; yet on social channels those expectations are considerably lowered.

A full audio podcast by Dr Hadland is available here: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/embed/c1f68305b5e55f48aea4

I hope the examples above are all inspirational. Stories you cover at the start of your mojo journey may not be on the scale of Harris or Garnett – but the same guidance, rules and preparation apply, whatever your subject or audience.


Using video to tell human interest stories: part 3

You’ve got the kit, you’ve listened to expert advice – so before you get cracking I thought I’d  share with you a couple of iPhone videos I’ve made. These have been produced at the start of my #mojo journey so they mostly showcase how NOT to do it.

They give me the chance to highlight where I’ve gone wrong and any difficulties I encountered and it’s also a great way to reflect on my learning so far.

First up is a video I shot on my iPhone at a busy event on campus at Birmingham City University. Inspired by a morning workshop with Stephen Quinn, I visited Langar on Campus, a food and information event hosted by the university’s Sikh Society.

Armed with just my iPhone and a Rode smartlav+ mic, attached via a short lead, I wandered around the event and chatted to volunteers and participants, shooting bits of footage, which I then hastily put together using the iMovie app, also on my iPhone. The whole exercise took less than two hours, including time out to eat some of the brilliant food.

My first piece of advice is to always clearly explain who you are, what you are doing and what you intend to do with the footage you create.

It’s good manners for a start, and may help you avoid one of the time-consuming issues I encountered later.

Ideally ask each participant to say their name at the start of recording and to confirm they are happy to be interviewed…more practical than asking people to sign permission forms. Just ensure you retain the footage in a permission folder somewhere.

If you are able to share email contact information all the better – it will demonstrate your professionalism and also means you can share a link to the finished video with them. This is a great way to encourage sharing of your finished work – when you send the link, invite your participants to share on their own Facebook or Twitter feed, thus increasing the views and shares.

Next, always do a rough storyboard of what footage you intend to take. This should help you avoid the simple mistake I made… I forgot to shoot an intro explainer while at the event so had to cobble something together in an empty corridor while editing.

The transitions between clips are clumsy, and the captioning is rough and ready, with some sections lacking any at all – but as an exercise in speed I’m quite pleased with it.

However, after completing and posting the video, I was contacted by one of the organisers I’d interviewed who, while happy to participate on the day, said he did not realise it was going to be shared on social media. He asked for his contributions to be removed – a difficult task as he featured a couple of times and voiced over a third section. Frustratingly, this deletion and re-editing exercise took as long as the original edit.

I could have refused but that seemed particularly churlish given the nature of the event.

The second video was created in a really short space of time to publicise a consultation event organised by the county council where I currently work as a content creator.

From a vague idea the day before, three of us in the communications team set off on a short travel challenge, covering a busy two mile stretch of road at rush hour in Worcester on either bus, bike or on foot. Fitter and younger colleagues took on the bike and run, while I whiled away 10 minutes on the bus.

Our aim was to raise awareness of the council’s Local Transport Plan, which included a section about ‘active travel’ – walking and cycling to me and you. The consultation had garnered limited responses, and we’d been asked to come up with ways to give it one final push before the consultation ended.

As it often is with off the cuff content, it garnered quite a bit of interest – the BBC’s local news team got in touch to interview us after spotting my speculative tweet sent out the night before; the story appeared on morning radio bulletins; and the resulting video was shared and viewed fairly widely across social media.

With hindsight I’d have preferred to have waited until after I’d had a haircut – but it was pleasing to turn it around quickly from original idea to posting.

The only problem was that some additional footage, taken on a gopro by our cyclist, failed to get uploaded successfully within our short timescale. So the video had to be cut without it. It’s definitely worse for the lack of it but sometimes time is of the essence.

There are lots of things wrong with this video – for example, I seem to forget I’m wearing a sensitive mic and keep SHOUTING! – but it served its purpose.

I’m pretty certain you can do a lot better…over to you!