When a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in 2010, igniting the Arab Spring, France 24 interviewed a man named Slimane Rouissi, who lived in the vendor’s town.
Rouissi’s information, photos, and videos put France 24, a government-funded, French version of CNN, ahead of its competitors in reporting the suicide and subsequent demonstrations as a populist revolt against former Tunisian President Zine al-Bidine Ben Ali.
Rouissi, who had previously provided reliable information, is one of 4,000 unpaid and trusted contributors around the world that France 24 calls Observers, a designation the network created in 2007.
From a glass-enclosed newsroom high above a Paris suburb, France 24 broadcasts in three languages to audiences across Europe, North Africa, and the United States. The network provides conventionally reported news stories for TV and online—and the vetted Observers have become an established and critical part of its news gathering operation.
While a number of news organizations, like CNN’s iReport, have established a way for citizens to report information, only France 24 has cultivated such a large number of loyal, longstanding volunteers from all over the world.
“Verification is at the heart of the project,” says Derek Thomson, a senior producer who co-founded the Observer network with French journalist Julien Pain seven years ago.
“There is tons of information—and video—on the internet, and the challenge is to find what is true,” he says. “We treat our Observers like any other source. ” That means, Thomson says, finding people as close as possible to a story, “who have firsthand knowledge or eyewitness accounts.”
France 24 editors ask for documentation for each story, photo, or video that Observers submit. The Observers have contributed thousands of stories, mainly for the France 24 website. But they also provide information and video for television reporting. And they verify questionable stories that come from other sources.
The program is so successful that another 100,000 volunteers are on call if France 24 is looking for information for specific stories. If they consistently provide good information, they become Observers.
Contributors live in nearly every nation, but are heavily weighted in the Middle East and Africa, especially Syria and Iran. But they are also found in Wallis and Futuna, a tiny French archipelago in the Pacific where there are four potential Observers. North Korea has no Observers, but a businessman who travels there reports regularly on the tastes of the leadership, including their predilection for well-brewed espresso.
“We also have terrific people in Saudi Arabia and China who have been sending us great stories for years,” Thomson says.
During the just-ended Afghan presidential election campaign, France 24 called on Observers for reporting, because it was simply too dangerous to send in staff correspondents.
Among them were an Afghan cricket coach, a school principal, a musician, and an employee of a logistics company.
“The idea was to have our anchors in Paris talk to them by phone or Skype about their impressions of the election… as Afghan citizens and voters,” Thomson says.
When a tourist balloon caught fire in Egypt, the France 24 Observer team tracked down the operator of another balloon, who provided an eyewitness account.
Observers also made a big contribution to France 24’s coverage of the 2009 presidential election in Iran. All foreign reporters had been ejected, so news organizations relied on hundreds of potentially newsworthy videos posted by Iranians on YouTube. Were they real or were they propaganda posted by candidates or the government?
The Observers were called on to check the claimed locations and other facts portrayed in many videos considered by the network all the way down to confirming whether a bridge was actually in a location described in a video.
“Our news journalists were able to be sure that the videos they put in their pieces were what they purported to be,” Thomson said.
Observers are mainly motivated by one of the oldest impulse in human history: Let me tell you a story. According to Thomson, “Of the thousands of Observers who have contributed to the site, not one has ever asked to be paid. Their motivation is almost always to share information that they believe is important for the world to know.”
“The Observers are no different from traditional sources,” he continues. “You check them out the first time, then as their subsequent information proves consistently reliable, you grow to trust them.”
Observers are not expected to step outside their normal routines, but once they see how the France 24 site works, they volunteer information, including tips on newsworthy developments in their countries. “We never ask them to go out and cover a story for us,” Thomson says. (One exception is half dozen Observers who are paid for finding and translating stories that are in languages not spoken by producers or editors at France 24.)
Thomson was hired in 2006 to launch France 24’s internet operation after working for ABC News in the US. “I wanted to find a project that would be unique to France 24 and help set us apart from competitors,” he says. “I wanted to find a way to inject that ‘normal person’ touch into the journalism.”
But there was tremendous resistance from the France 24 executive board.
“They were old-school French TV journalists,” he said. But with the support of the news director at the network, the Observers were launched and the program has steadily grown.
Thomson concedes that some contributors have an agenda. For those, he says, France 24 editors focus on the facts and ignore “the ideology they want to spread.” One of them included a Jihadist rebel commander in Syria who sends young men out on suicide attacks.
“But they have interesting information that we won’t find elsewhere,” he says, even if they “are not people I would like to think of as colleagues.”