Associate Professor of Journalism Innovation: Bruce Mutsvairo’s title suggests he may have solutions to some of the industry’s big problems.
Asked what it means, the 185-cm academic laughs his big loud laugh and says he’s really not too sure. In a moment though, he’s serious, talking about the possibilities for young students in “the wonderful world of journalism”.
Start-ups are front of mind, as is industry engagement – “something that puts us up there … we know UTS is well respected in this field so it’s an important moment for us to explore and discuss the challenges journalism is facing, especially from a technological perspective,” Mutsvairo says.
“If you want to be competitive, if you want ours to be a global epicentre for journalism research and teaching, then you have got to make a commitment to innovation because, whether you like it or not, that’s the future.
“We have a deputy vice-chancellor in charge of that portfolio and in my faculty there’s a new associate dean handling innovation. UTS is moving with the times, I guess.”
Born in the capital Harare just before Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, Bruce Mutsvairo has come to Sydney via the Netherlands, his second home and the place he moved to as a teen; New Zealand, where he did a certificate in radio journalism in “cold and beautiful” Invercargill; Russia, where he learnt Russian; and the UK, where he studied and returned to teach journalism.
After a three-year stint with the Associated Press, Mutsvairo moved to academia but says he doesn’t see a significant difference between practising and teaching journalism.
“I think it’s kind of the same. Regardless of which world you live in, if you treat people with respect they will in turn respect you, or at least you’d hope they would.”
His arrival to pursue the cause of journalism innovation in the UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences comes at a time of media evolution. The jobs market for journalists is in a state of flux as companies new and old try to work through the challenges and opportunities of digital disruption. At the same time, world events continue to make the case for journalism’s important place in a democratic society.
Technology is Mutsvairo’s area of expertise, in both teaching and research, and Africa is his love. As an AP journalist based in Amsterdam, he made frequent trips to Africa, and since becoming an academic has become known for his work in the fields of citizen journalism, social media activism and social movements, especially south of the Sahara.
The phenomenon of citizen journalism, and its close relatives activism and hacktivism, is good but also very complex, he says. For a start, there is the key question of context – “key because citizen journalism might be good in one country but not so good in another”.
“If the public sphere is free and unconstrained, then citizen journalism is good because it provides alternative voices. In any democracy, that’s not a bad idea because people get to hear from diverse sources.
“But if you’re living in a place where the public sphere is constrained, the role and function of citizen journalism can be completely different and possibly misunderstood … perhaps one of the biggest problems is that much of what is put in the public domain is not verified, not truthful news.”
There are also questions of training, ethics and the price established journalism pays for its rise – “if you’re a trained journalist you have some parameters, ethics you hopefully adhere to”, Mutsvairo says.
He says we live in a tough world where technology can be the enabler but also at the heart of society’s problems – think of the growth of populism, he says, and the digital divide, which is a huge problem in Africa.
A meeting in Mutsvairo’s office makes plain another significant element of his life – reggae, which he was drawn to as a teenager. Almost 20 years’ worth of dreadlocks are twirled on top of his head and two large posters of the late Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley adorn the wall above his desk.
“I follow reggae religiously. I think the annual reggae summer jam festival in Cologne, Germany, celebrated its 32nd edition this year and I have attended most of them.”
Happily, he says, one of Sydney’s best reggae clubs is only a short walk from UTS.