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How Mensagem is bridging the news divide within Lisbon’s underreported communities

“Within the first month of starting, we dropped the phrase ‘give people a voice’ because all people have a voice – we just need to hear them.” – Catarina Carvalho

Lisbon-based digital local news startup Mensagem de Lisboa has established pop-up newsrooms in three of the least covered areas within the metropole in a groundbreaking effort to “cultivate understanding, empathy, and positive societal change”.

Undesert The News is Mensagem’s part of The Narrativas project, within the European Journalism Fund’s Local Media for Democracy program. Its objective is to convey unknown stories to the broader city, creating a bridge that empowers communities and amplifies their voices.

Mensagem is a collective of resident journalists with a passion for the city, who have made it their cause. Founder and veteran editor Catarina Carvalho is a media specialist and educator. She serves on  WAN-IFRA’S World Editors Forum Board, was a fellow of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and  headed up the Portugal branch of the Online News Association.

In highlighting the lack of representation and knowledge about marginalised communities in media, Carvalho emphasises the need for inclusive media literacy education – and laments the misconceptions around media literacy.

“When you talk about media literacy, there is this idea that we are going to teach media literacy to other people; to kids on the other side of the spectrum. It’s totally the other way around. We learned a lot about, and with, everybody in this city. The lack of knowledge goes both ways. Nobody knows about each other. And the fact is, if people are not represented in the media, why would they consume it? They don’t feel the need.

With news avoidance at an all-time high – 36% across all markets, according to Reuters Digital News Report: “News avoiders are more likely to say they are interested in positive or solutions-based journalism and less interested in the big stories of the day … This group splits between (a) those who are trying to periodically avoid all sources of news and (b) those that are trying to specifically restrict their news usage at particular times or for certain topics.

This is borne out by research commissioned by the Solutions Journalism Network and conducted by media firm SmithGeiger, which showed thatsolutions storytelling offers key benefits for journalists and news consumers alike, across platforms and demographics.” According to the results:

“79% percent of people surveyed believed that local news both ‘identifying specific problems facing your local area and to also report on the solutions community members have found to address these problems’ is either essential or important.”

“It’s so obvious to those of us on the frontier, on the boundaries of all these different worlds, it’s very obvious that there are a lot of good stories going on – stories that people should be knowing, and should be telling. It’s there. It was always there. Nobody goes there. Nobody leaves the newsroom.So for people who are in the traditional media, inside the bubble, it’s not that obvious,” notes Carvalho.

Connecting communities with collaborative storytelling

Journalists from Mensagem have teamed up with young individuals from three communities: Chelas, Mem Martins in Sintra, and Amadora, to narrate and share their untold stories with a broader audience.

These stories have been collaboratively produced with cultural groups such as Unidigrazz in Mem Martins, youth association Kriativu in Chelas, and Cavaleiros – São Brás in Casal da Boba.

Kriativu community organiser Nuno Varela says the project is breaking ground and, after initial wariness, is receiving enthusiastic adoption.

“In the beginning, there was a big gap between community members and the media,” he says, pointing to the fact that people in underserved communities rarely get to further education, and the communities itself are generally portrayed in the media as crime-ridden.

The general feeling was “this is not for me” – until workshops proved differently, adds Valera.

“In learning the ways that they can tell the stories, and how they can use media to tell stories – with videos, images or text – they see that there’s something that they can do in the future. So already, there is one that is now thinking probably that he can be a journalist. It’s difficult to be a journalist, but it’s not that difficult to probably add to this on Twitter. So with this project, we find a way to say, and to bring to others a way to say.”

Carvalho adds that: “Within the first month of starting, we dropped the phrase ‘give people a voice’ because all people have a voice – we just need to hear them.”

Valera believes that legacy media’s biggest failing is a lack of field reporters within communities. “I think it’s very important to be close with the communities, to learn about them, give some power to them and give them a space to show what is happening inside these communities – and to get the communities involved. “

Galvanised by the impact the project has had on his community, Valera is already taking things further, and is accelerating a local community newspaper, Gazetta do Bairro, with Mensagem as a partner.

Undesert the News articles are scheduled for publication from this month, and promises a representative, diverse array of experiences and perspectives often overlooked.

In April, Mensagem will organise a conference on the topic at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

For more information on Undesert the News contact:
• Catarina Carvalho +351-21 963 710 010 • catcar@hotmail.com
Catarina Reis +351-21 912 600 996 • geral@amensagem.pt

ALSO SEE:

Five things news media can do to respond to consistent news avoidance 

News mirages (not news deserts) are the scarier problem

News for the powerful and privileged: how misrepresentation and underrepresentation of disadvantaged communities undermine their trust in news

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