Training a generation of citizen-journalists
Two years ago, frustrated by the powerlessness citizens expressed to me about the political process, moved by their transpartisan worries about the state of U.S. democracy, I began an experiment on Facebook: I sought to train “ordinary” people from all walks of life as reporters and opinion writers.
The community grew fast, to a reach of over 10 million and between 100,000 and 250,000 users a week. People joined from 23 countries. There was clearly an appetite for this kind of training and the material it produced.
More exciting to me as a journalist was that the quality of information these “ordinary” citizens were generating – once they had taken on board basics such as “what is double sourcing?”, the importance of “who, what where, why and how?” and the role of eyewitness accounts and original documents – rose very high.
My personal beat as a reporter is civil liberties in the U.S., and the death of local newspapers has meant there is little coverage of state-level stories of these issues. That new void of local reporting leaves the federal government and Congress less than accountable on the local level.
But Gerald Rozner, a tech specialist, gave us solid blow-by-blow accounts of the Emergency Managers fight in Michigan, with original documentation such as court rulings; Jennifer Slattery, an activist, got us sound and vivid documentation of the clashes between Occupy and Oakland police, and brought us detailed reports from similar fights around the country; other sources put together a trend by agribusiness interests to criminalize raw milk production and sales state by state. Citizen reports came in from many local sources confirming that Department of Homeland Security money and armaments were flowing into local police forces; they posted city council meeting minutes to back this up. Understandably – since news outlets have had to slash the staff that used to cover these beats – this story and its magnitude was almost overlooked by mainstream news outlets till months later. None of our contributors are paid: They work because they want to make sure that the information they find gets into the public arena.
Encouraged by these developments, a group of partners and I began to think about building a website that would support this kind of journalism and opinion writing, and help citizens strengthen democracy in other ways. DailyCloudt.com, launched three weeks ago, is the result.
This model of training citizens to be reporters and pundits is even more exciting when you take it global. We started on Facebook to get real-time Twitter reports, via Greg Monahan in Ireland, from friends of his on the Gaza-bound illegal flotillas: We knew – before most news outlets did – when activists on board were taken off the boat and transported to Israeli hospitals. Greg connected our feed with Twitter messages, too, from Internet friends and colleagues of his in the human rights world who were reporting live from Gaza during the Israeli bombardment: We watched and heard the bombs falling in real time, in human voices. Another memorable report came when we were discussing and posting news sources about the U.S. drone presence in Pakistan – and a Pakistani dad summarized what it was like for parents in his village to decide whether or not to send their kids to school that day based on local U.S. drone activity.
We live in a world in which gatekeepers and governments try to spin and control the flow of information, and the Internet is thus under continual attack. But democracy is strongest everywhere when nothing can happen anywhere that an army of citizens can’t fully document to a global audience – and then organize around.
Add training for “ordinary” people around the world and here at home to write and source op-eds and news, and you get a powerful new mix. Already we have heard on DailyCloudt.com the kinds of voices you rarely hear in mainstream opinion pages: A stay-at-home mom, Celeste Hayes, rebutted Hilary Rosen’s comments about motherhood; a pro-life feminist challenged her own movement to support contraception – that is, if it really cared about lowering abortion rates; a music teacher, Joseph Ciolino, defended the Second Amendment; a teacher and mother of a special-needs child revealed that the school testing mania is actually a gift to the lobbyists of test administrator Pearson; and a realtor, Christine Mann, explained why Obama’s much-ballyhooed Green Jobs initiative is really a gift to the vinyl industry – with toxic results for us. Autumn Smith of Michigan did some eyewitness reporting and photographing of state legislator Lisa Brown and playwright Eve Ensler’s peformance of The Vagina Monologues on Michigan’s statehouse steps after Brown made her famous comment about anti-abortion legislation. A citizen reporting that made it in turn into the Guardian this week. And Smith helped unearth, in a Q&A with Representative Brown on that site, that legislation has been introduced in Michigan’s statehouse to prevent conflicts of interest allowing legislators to profit personally – but that the bill has not been signed.
All in all, training citizens to shine this kind of light has already made for a better couple of weeks in the effort to strengthen democracy.
We’ve layered on top of all of this some software that kicks up remarkable results every day: Developer Greg Podunovich’s Legislative Search Engine crawls the Internet 24/7, scraping data about upcoming bills and presenting them searchably by issue; I call it the “headline factory.” Most laws are passed in darkness, since bills like the National Defense Authorization Act weigh in at 1,600 pages, and, while lobbyists and their lawyers are looped in, most people are left out of the discussion. But the comment function on the search engine lets organizations and users explain what a bill means in real English – giving voters, organizations, legislators and journalists a way to actually comprehend what is being done on the Hill – before it is too late. Other functions let people start their own political movements, draft and crowdsource their own legislation (24 states have referendums available for citizens to do so) and confront their own legislators’ district offices with their group of (registered, we hope) voters and their own proposed bills in hand. Soon, we will offer grassroots fundraising too.
Is DailyCloudt.com new, rough and a work in progress? Yes. Can it make a dent in the entrenched obstacles to real democracy? In raising new voices, we think we have already begun. Can it potentially help explain bills whose true meaning is now coded in legalese, possibly help people stop bad laws and launch good ones, and help shift the levers of democracy back into the hands of the people? Yes, yes, and that is up to you.
PHOTO: Members of the White House press type on their laptop computers in the dark as U.S.President Barack Obama speaks to supporters at a fundraising reception at the Paramount Theater in Seattle May 10, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing