Turkey is a case study in the value of citizen journalists, thanks to the ones behind @140journos

Many traditional journalists seem to hate the term “citizen journalism,” for a variety of reasons — including the fact that it implies that anyone can engage in journalistic behavior, even if they don’t work for a mainstream media outlet or have professional training. But there is no question that this trend is an important and useful one, and one recent example is the work being done by a group called @140journos in Turkey, who have been crowdsourcing the verification of election results.
As Global Post describes it, the more than 300 volunteers behind @140journos — which was created in 2011 after a Turkish military incident that went uncovered by the media, and later gained notoriety during the demonstrations over the closure of Istanbul’s Gezi Park — not only tracked all of the local voting behavior during the election using social media, but have since spent hundreds of hours trying to verify the official reporting of the vote results.

“Twenty citizen journalists — who have day jobs ranging from radio hosts to chefs and engineers — gathered in a small room to collect, verify and tweet news alerts about polling stations, protests, and unofficial election results. Four people were ‘mining’ on social media — digging for stories that 140journos may have missed — while two designers created colorful infographics.”

Crowdsourced verification of poll results

Following the election, the members of @140journos have been using social tools and connections made through their own networks — as well as a public call-out on Facebook, Twitter and the group’s website — to gather original photos of ballot reports for every single one of Turkey’s almost 200,000 polling stations. They’ve compared these to official reports from the electoral council and found that in some cases the numbers don’t match.
According to Global Post, in just the first 48 hours, @140journos “documented 368 inconsistent polling numbers” in several thousand ballot reports from Ankara and Istanbul, and they are working on more. And they have opened this process up with a tool that allows anyone to compare official ballot results with photos from polling stations, which sounds a lot like the Guardian’s famous “MP Expenses” crowdsourcing project. Said @140journos co-founder Ogulcan Ekiz:

“We wanted to ask, what’s the power of social media? What if we open this to people and let them check their own ballot? It will be a moment for the Turkish public to check its own elections. This is the new thing.”

Some professional journalists might disagree, but that kind of behavior sounds a lot like journalism to me — and fairly useful journalism to boot. As I pointed out in an earlier post about Turkey, the value of social media as a journalistic tool becomes even more obvious when you see how it works in a country where the traditional media has failed to do its job properly.
It’s not surprising at all that such a country would ban Twitter and YouTube. This apparently caused difficulties for @140journos during their crowdsourced verification process, but they managed to get around the blockage by using VPNs and other tools (the Twitter ban has been lifted following a court decision, but the block on YouTube remains in effect).

Journalism as a communication project

What’s equally fascinating about @140journos is that many of them don’t even consider themselves to be journalists, or what they do to be journalism — or at least, they aren’t particularly concerned about using those labels or defining what they mean (unlike most professional journalists). As co-founder Engin Onder told the Nieman Journalism Lab:

“None of us on our team has any intention of being a journalist… it’s better to explore this stuff without knowing the journalism principles, because it’s not a journalism project, actually — it’s a communication project.”

This fits with my theory that some of the most important and interesting acts of journalism of the last few years have been committed by non-journalists, or at least non-professional journalists — including people like former NPR editor Andy Carvin during the Arab Spring (who called himself an information DJ and described Twitter as his newsroom) and Brown Moses, a British blogger who became a self-taught expert in the weaponry used by Syrian terrorists.
This doesn’t mean such acts should be seen as — or are even capable of — replacing traditional journalism, except perhaps in countries like Turkey, where it needs replacing. Instead, it is simply enlarging the practice and expanding its reach, and that is a good thing. For more on @140journos, see the Nieman Journalism Lab’s recent transcript of an interview that sociologist Zeynep Tufekci did with Engin Onder at a Berkman Center event at Harvard University.
Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / triloks and Ogulcan Ekiz