A Changing Media Landscape in Turkey: The 140journos Project — An Interview with Burcu Baykurt

JIA Editorial Board
December 12, 2014

Journal of International Affairs: How did you get involved in 140journos?

Burcu Baykurt: I found out about them in June 2012. I was going to Europe for a workshop, and the organizers had asked me to bring an example to demonstrate good media coverage of the situation in Turkey. I had not lived in Turkey for a while so I did not know about on-the-ground initiatives like this one. A friend told me to check out 140journos. At the time the group was only six months old, so it was really small; it was a group of four college students who were doing it on a volunteer basis. The story is that they were really fed up with the Turkish media being blind to quite critical things happening in the country, like problems encountered by the Kurds, environmental challenges, and LGBT protests, for example. But they had mobile phones and used Twitter, so why not go to these protests and events and cover these things that the mainstream media was not covering? When I met them, we clicked very quickly. Before the Gezi Square protests, we had been discussing how we could actually engage people on Twitter and encourage them to share news, but Gezi naturally created that.

Journal: Do you have a core group of contributors? How has 140journos built up a successful following?

Baykurt: This is how it works: First, we have random people who just see something on the street and take a picture and post it. Then, we have some people who are really fed up with the mainstream media and who are our loyal reporters on the ground. We have their phone numbers, and we chat with them regularly. So when something happens,

we know that in X city we can reach Y person to send us reports on the ground. And then we have the core group to do editorial work, be active on Twitter, and stay in touch with all these people.

We also use a lot of data to analyze the state of citizen news in Turkey. There are some cities that we never hear from. So one of our projects for the next couple of months is to visit those cities, meet with civic groups and local media, and really just understand the challenges and problems they face. The politics and the stories of the media are usually concentrated in big cities. In Turkey, it is mostly Istanbul, or maybe Ankara, but there are seventy other cities that we never hear from.

Like in many other countries where authoritarian governments have tried to shut down outside forces, Twitter has become a political tool in Turkey, and it has become quite powerful. But, at the same time, the government and governing party are undertaking a very active campaign to demonize social media. They locked out users back in March, but there is also an ongoing, softer “don’t let your kids spend too much time on social media” campaign as well. In spite of such obstructionist tactics by the government, we are constantly thinking of ways to reach out to groups in other towns that we do not hear from. Right now we are working on that.

Journal: What were the major frustrations with mainstream media in Turkey? And how has 140journos helped to remedy these frustrations?

Baykurt: If you are a freelancer or a journalist, obviously you can go report as a professional. But if you are a citizen, and there is something that bothers you, and you feel like your viewpoint is not being represented, you just have to wait for journalists to come and cover it. We want to provide an outlet for someone to say, “Hey, this is happening where I live and it is really bothering me; but, instead of just ranting on Twitter about it, I am going to show you. What are the tools I can use to tell that story?” We want to create a platform that would not intimidate citizen users, but will offer them various ways to express themselves.

The reason why citizens were so fed up with the mainstream media was not just because of censorship, but also partisanship. Turkey right now is very polar- ized; there is a political culture of “either you are with us, or against us.” The political discourse itself is very polarized as well. So the language that 140journos uses is very neutral. It is neutral and factual to the extent that I sometimes joke that it is a little dull perhaps, especially for social media, and Twitter in particular. But we are very careful about making editorial decisions. If there is hate speech coming from a group in a protest, we will broadcast that. But there should not be any subjective or inflammatory language coming from our group. This principle is Journalism 101, but in Turkey, it has become an alternative to the mainstream. It is a return to basics and sticking to the facts because that is the only way to become a viable alternative.

Journal: How is the verification of tweets and sources important to your work?

Baykurt: There were many times during the Gezi protests when we were seeing reports of something that was completely wrong or that we were not really sure about, so we did a lot of verification. One example was of a man who was working for the local government in Ankara as a street cleaner. He was on the street just cleaning but got hit by a tear gas canister and lost his eye. This story was circulating on Twitter, yet people were not sure about its veracity. So, we called up the government office and asked if the report was true, and they confirmed it and told us he was in the hospital. We called the hospital, got his name, and verified it. That guy now has actually become an activist. He is constantly sending us information. So we do a lot of verification with diverse people living in many different cities.

We do not have a single set of guidelines, but rather four or five steps that we abide by. For example, ‘are we sure this person is tweeting on the ground?’ ‘Do we have any visual evidence?’ Then we look at the person’s profile and former tweets. Really, they are more like verification tips. We now have this social media reputation that we are a reliable news source that does not spread only one kind of political news. It is that reputation that makes people more eager to re-tweet us.

Journal: How did the protests in Gezi Square change the work of 140journos?

Baykurt: Before the protests, the 140journos team in Turkey was attending protests themselves to cover the events as conventional journalists would. They were going to protests to try to report the news because there was not much content coming from citizens on the ground. There were a couple of court cases where journalists were not allowed, but the 140journos team could just walk in with their phones and live tweet the court hearing. But after the Gezi protests, the core team has never been on the ground during protests because the content is now coming to us. Our jobs have changed a little bit. We are now looking through tweets, verifying if they contain any misinformation, and using other tools to follow up with people, find more information online, or correct rumors online, which happens quite often in moments of crisis. So the roles have changed. Gezi helped us to get content from a diverse group of people and broadcast it.

Journal: What are the future goals of 140journos?

Baykurt: At the moment, we have over 50,000 followers on Twitter and really good friends all around Turkey who are very committed to this project, so it is moving toward becoming a more formal and larger project. Right now we are trying to build a news application. The goal is really to create a citizen news agency, and we are asking ourselves, “What do we need to create that?” We decided that we could create a news application to distribute the editorial process to a larger number of people. We want to encourage people to cover different stories. When it is on Twitter, people can easily report on protests and live events, but the question now is whether it would be possible to diversify the content being supplied by the citizens themselves. As of now, we are in the midst of really grappling with these questions. I am here [in New York City], and I have a friend who is a programmer and designer here who is very active in building this application. Currently, we also have a New York office in the works. Also, the team in Turkey is trying to figure out how to reach out to more people and get them up to speed with things like citizen journalism tools. Now we really have a bigger goal of sustainably producing our own news, so as to reduce the reliance on mainstream media.

The news application is at a very early stage in terms of building, but conceptually, we are quite close. We really hope to launch it next spring. There are a couple of things we want to achieve. One is how to distribute the various roles. We are really thinking about how we can distribute editorial roles to others outside the organization and take advantage of the network that we have developed, rather than having our core team running the whole thing. Second, can we diversify the content—or, not just the content, but also the cities we hear from as well as the different political and social groups we hear from? I think the third thing is how to incentivize better content. We want to be able to reach more people but intervene less. It is great when someone tweets from an event that is happening. But without a photo or video or visual evidence, we are not entirely comfortable publishing it. That is something we wish all citizen journalists would do. It seems very basic, but I think it is very important: mention the time and turn on your geolocation. We would really like to reward better content. It would be amazing if people could actually continuously provide content and tell stories. We cannot dictate that, but we can come up with ways to encourage that.

Journal: What are some of the changes you have seen in the media scene since 140journos began?

Baykurt: The core group of people who founded the group would actually hate to be called journalists. They are even uncomfortable using the phrase “citizen journalism,” and they only use it because there is not a better phrase to describe what they are doing. I do not feel that way, and I tease them sometimes that this is journalism, and they have to accept that. The fact that they feel so uncomfortable with the term, perhaps, is also a reaction to the practice of journalism in Turkey that they want to distance themselves from.

Before Gezi, people such as myself and others in 140journos knew that you could not necessarily trust the mainstream media. But, those protests helped the majority of people to realize that there was a very clear bias in the mainstream media. Many journalists either quit or lost their jobs in the post-Gezi era and have started these alternative media organizations; it is definitely a change I have seen become more and more visible. Because we started a little earlier, we have already dealt with the difficulty of sustaining such an organization. We do not make any money—zero. We do not have a budget or anything. It is really all volunteering. Those other, post-Gezi organizations are really struggling. We have been part of that debate in Turkey—what can we do about media, what are we doing right, and what are we doing wrong? When in doubt, we look at mainstream media and try to do the opposite. But I think more and more people, when some sort of news breaks, are starting to turn to their Twitter feeds rather than turning on the TV. And I would like to think that we have become one of the places that they turn to get the facts, which is really our primary goal.