Supporting Citizen Journalism in Turkey

An audio recording of a recent discussion with the co-founder of 140journos is available here on SoundCloud.

Thanks to the rise of social media and crowd-sourcing, an increasing amount of reporting now comes from individuals without specific journalistic training. While communications researchers often focus on the impact of citizen reporting on journalism, we rarely interrogate how closely it is linked to civic engagement: Are citizens who send reports from the ground already engaged in other areas of civic life? What are the ways of building diverse citizen news communities online? And how can social media be used to spur a conversation – not to mention action – despite the constant stream of new information that these tools provide?

Engin Onder, co-founder of Turkey’s 140journos, a Twitter-based citizen journalism network, visited Columbia Journalism School last week to talk about his organization’s experience of building and engaging a news community online. Founded in early 2012, 140journos set out to counter media manipulation and censorship in Turkey, whose media environment has been degrading for several years. In its 2014 press freedom rankings, Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “partly free” to “not free.” “Turkey’s TV stations aired 44 hours of live speeches by President Erdoğan in one week” said Onder – meaning many major stories that matter to certain political, social, ethnic, religious or intellectual communities remain underreported.

In its first 18 months, 140journos operated in relative obscurity. Onder and his co-founders were reporting directly from street protests or courtrooms, sending 140-character Twitter reports about events that mainstream media largely ignored. When the Gezi protests began, however, Onder said their role changed almost overnight. In the information vacuum left by mainstream media, hundreds of people turned to Twitter to report and share news. Sifting through thousands of tweets, 140journos began curating and verifying social media content instead of reporting on the ground. “We wanted to keep a neutral identity so we were always avoiding to be part of the conversation during the Gezi protests,” Onder said.

During Gezi, 140journos gained a loyal following on social media and a reputation as a reliable citizen news network. Today, the organization has a core group of citizen reporters around the country that has already been vetted by 140journos’ editors. “We’re friends with many of them,” said Engin, adding that the group can generally rely on these reporters when there’s a particular story to be covered. 140journos also uses social media in creative ways to build intelligence around what kind of stories might become critical via Twitter lists or Facebook groups based on events or places.

The success of the group has prompted wider interest in their methods. 140journos was recently awarded a European Cultural Fountation grant to organize citizen journalism workshops in cities where there are not enough citizen reporters. Editors from 140journos are meeting with local change-makers or activists who already use social media platforms, but have yet to use them for news reporting. “In Turkey more than 30 million people use Facebook and more than 10 million are on Twitter, but not everyone may not be aware of how to better use the existing infrastructure,” said Onder.

It is one thing to have a large, diverse network of citizen reporters, and another to engage this network in an ongoing conversation. Turkey’s social media can be highly partisan and host to heated commentaries. 140journos, however, is very meticulous about using neutral language – to the extent that they keep a collection of “controversial words on social media.” While 140journos might not be liked on social media because their coverage is so neutral, Onder admits, he believes it is essential in order to reach to a diverse set of communities.

140journos strives to turn heated moments into “meaningful discussions” by using explanatory tools, such as maps. Onder described how 140journos created a community discussion around the death of Turkey’s former president Kenan Evren, who died on May 9. Evren was strongly disliked in much of the country at the time of  his death, so the news immediately became the most popular topic on Twitter. Among all the visuals and commentaries people were sharing on social media, 140journos team noticed a front-page story from the year Evren was elected president. Though was a poor-quality image, it displayed the results of Evren’s 1982 referendum, showing how cities around Turkey had voted. Using that image and the data it contained, 140journos created these new maps that, Onder explained, offers many insights into Turkey’s current political controversies, thus generating a more informed debate.

140journos is now working on two fronts by growing their team and community, and using better information and visuals to contextualize partisan issues. A key part of this, Onder said, is getting to know the country better by actually visiting cities and organizing workshops. “I can’t really tell where all these efforts are going to take us,” Onder confessed. “But we believe it is going to empower people.”

An audio recording of the event can be accessed on SoundCloud, here.

Read about Professor Susan McGregor’s upcoming work in Turkey with the President’s Global Innovation Fund at Columbia University.