Over the past few years, a new television format has hit airwaves around the globe - journalism reality TV. It's a simple set-up - over the course of several months, university journalism students are pitted against each other, investigating real-life stories in a battle to produce the best piece of reporting and - ultimately - be crowned the show's top journalist.

Critics have argued that entertainment with hard-hitting journalism dilutes what investigative reporting is actually about, but the shows' producers say their programmes offer an insight into the often crucial work of the fourth estate - at a time when trust in the media is at an all-time low.

"Many societies in this world are not educated, they are superficial, they are not interested in facts or solid information," explains Karen Andreasyan, the creator of Armenia's Journalistic Battles. "So, if the audience requires juggling, or dancing, or whatever entertainment to pass them true and interesting and helpful information, then I am ready to do that - even if we are criticised that this is not serious."

The audience figures prove each year these shows are getting bigger and bigger and more people want to be in them.

Lisa Essex, media consultant

Former BBC Africa editor and executive producer of Kenya's incarnation of the genre, Top Story, says that these shows, in addition to some fun, offer aspiring journalists the practical experience and skills they might not pick up in their university classrooms.

"Given where we're at with fake news, it's really important to have a programme like Top Story or a mentorship scheme like that because these are the people we are relying on now and in the future to be able to distinguish what is true and what is false. And we really focus on some very key and basic skills, like interviewing skills. How do you find the right people to interview? How do you conduct your interview professionally and ethically?"

But it's not just the students who are benefiting from this unlikely mix of journalism and reality TV.

A study by the European Journalism Centre (EJC) found that shows like Kenya's Top Story had a significant impact on the media literacy of its audience, improving the public's understanding of the crucial role investigative journalism can play in promoting accountability and good governance.

According to Lisa Essex, media consultant at the EJC and judge on Journalistic Battles and Top Story, "People don't really understand the role that media plays in supporting democracy. People are unsure what journalists do. They don't really think they need journalists until suddenly there's a crisis and they have nowhere else to turn."

"We tried to show the audience, we as journalists, we are the fourth estate and we are there to help you and support you. The audience figures prove each year these shows are getting bigger and bigger and more people want to be in them. Clearly, we're doing something right, and the audience seems to like it."

Contributors
Joseph Warungu - Creator, Top Story
Karen Andreasyan - Creator, Journalistic Battles
Lisa Essex - European Journalism Centre and judge on Top Story and Journalistic Battles
Janet Mbugua Ndichu - Journalist and judge and mentor on Top Story

Source: Al Jazeera