The Accidental Journalist
How a small, seemingly insignificant decision led me to become a primary source for news outlets across the world.
For weeks, I had been following the leadup to the June 12th, 2009 election in Iran. I was a teacher at the time, and on my way home from work I heard an NPR report about how Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a moderate reformist, was expected to win the upcoming elections. I was struck by how different this narrative was from the traditional images of Iran published by the press, so I did more research.
I discovered the Tehran Bureau, an independent group of Iranian-Americans who were breaking down complex and paradoxical Iranian political system for the average American. I was hooked. With a new American President, and the prospect of a new Iranian reformist, peace and cooperation might have been right around the corner.
It didn’t play out that way. Ahmadinejad, a hardline incumbent, won a decisive victory in what soon became the infamous “Iran election.” For many, the hopes of a “reset” in Iran were dashed…for about a day or so.
I was amazed to watch images broadcast on cable news, showing the Iranian people taking to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, braving beatings and arrests to voice their desire for freedom and democracy. Even when the camera feeds were shut off and the media was expelled, the protests continued. Using Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook, the images of the protests were escaping even the tightest government censorship. For hours at a time, I was glued to the images of the protesters. Maybe change was right around the corner.
Early in the morning on Tuesday, June 16, 2009, I read an article on Tehran Bureau describing how Americans and Europeans could help the Iranian protesters by changing their Geotag location on Twitter to Iran and changing their timezone to Tehran time. Even though I barely used my Twitter account, and didn’t even remember my password, I figured that this was a small token of my appreciation for the bravery of the Green Movement.
Within hours, thousands of others had done what I had done. We joined the #iranelection tag on Twitter, and instantly this small action had changed the course of my life. An early adopter of this new idea, I was quickly contacted by individuals who claimed that they were from Iran. My email inbox, my twitter screen, and my internet browser were soon scrolling information as fast as the user-interface in the Matrix movies. We were engaged in what felt like full-scale cyber-warfare against a foreign nation. Within days, I had Tweeted news of the protests, analyzed Youtube videos of Iranians chanting in Persian, and detailed the locations where Iranians were reporting that they were being attacked by government supporters. I had even received emails of the location of Iranian tanks, which I put on Twitter, just to have an American tell me that he put them on a Google map. Now I could see a satellite image of downtown Tehran, a city I had never been to, marked with the location of tanks, roadblocks, and riots; all from halfway across the world.
It was immediately obvious to me that this new way of sharing breaking news could change the world. I also quickly realized that there was a fundamental problem with this new use of technology. At this point in this process, I could not define what I was doing as “journalism.” This information was politically and ideologically biased, and was basically unverified. Though there were thousands like me trying to sort fact from fiction, I realized that a methodology would have to be created to convert this torrent of unverified claims into a stream of reliable and accessible information.
And so, my personal blog and my personal Twitter account evolved as the hours turned to days, and the days into months. Unbeknownst to me until they contacted me in early 2010, I had become a primary source of information for The Guardian, who expressed interest in collaborating as new protests were on the horizon. I followed closely the incredible journalism coming from Josh Shahryar (Huffington Post, Green Briefs, and The Daily Nite Owl), Dave Siavashi (Iran News Now), Nico Pitney (Huffington Post), and Scott Lucas (EA Worldview, then Enduring America). I contacted and began to work with these journalists, eventually joining a team that would create the template on how to use social media, liveblogging, and investigative reporting, in coordination with traditional journalists, to cover quickly developing stories in places like Iran.
It was time to take the next step, so I rebranded my personal blog and launched Dissected News. Initially, the website was a vehicle for my Iran coverage. Immediately, however, it took on two other roles: a discussion of other stories that the media was not paying enough attention to, and a discussion about the media itself.
As the title of this page suggests, I was not a journalist. I did not go to journalism school. I did, however, go to school for anthropology. Contemporary anthropology relies heavily upon field work, the heart of the discipline, but it also utilizes quantitative and qualitative data, taken from both observation and from broader sociological studies. In fact, I was hired to teach in part because I had shown an interest in both working with students and in using data to pinpoint and retool educational approaches to help struggling students, especially students who were an ethnic minority in their school system. As such, when I encountered the Iran story, I was interested in it not just because of its compelling human rights angle but also because of its fascinating intersection with social upheaval, intercultural exchange, new technology, and an inadequate system of journalism. I was compelled by the idea that journalists, many of whom were very young, were adopting new methodologies to outperform traditional media outlets in their coverage of the Iranian uprising. I was fascinated to see that news outlets like New York Times were struggling to cover the story in their newspapers while exceeding at their online coverage in segments like The Lede Blog. I was mostly, however, disturbed to find out that a major news outlet was using me as an uncited source and that they were, in their own words, relying on heavily for coverage, despite the fact that during some of that time period I did not even consider myself to be doing journalism.
As I was already working with them, and their coverage was more established (and informed by Scott Lucas’s expertise), I formerly joined forces with the EA Worldview team in 2010. Dissected News was put on hiatus. In the spring of 2010, I was laid off from my teaching job, the result of draconian cuts to the State program which funded my position. I was spending more time on EA as a result. In the fall, while our focus was still on Iran, another story was creeping into our headlines. We began to talk more and more about a developing opposition movement in Egypt.
We turned around in early 2011 to find that we had, in fact, been leading the way on a story which just exploded to the international front pages. With millions of hits a week, and hundreds of quotations in dozens of leading news agencies, we were being recognized for our work on Syria, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and beyond.
I began to focus on one story in particular, Syria. I soon developed significant contacts within the country, and began to categorize the various social media accounts that were posting information. I was struck at the similarities between covering Syria and Iran, where verification became the most important tool. I was also struck by how few media outlets were following the story with any eye to the terabytes of data that was emerging from the country each and every day. I began to network with field reporters from news agencies like The Guardian, News Week, Christian Science Monitor, and others, working with field journalists to point them in the direction of unanswered questions, helping to use resources in the field to verify data being posted on social media sites, as well as to find the holes in that data.
I watched amazing field journalism, and horrible field journalism, but most of all I watched how even good journalism was not penetrating into the narratives put out in the sea of media. I watched as few media outlets used data in any sort of scientific fashion, and many news agencies made terrible mistakes with social media sources (Google “Gay Girl in Damascus”). I again became fascinated by journalistic methodologies, and began to discuss those methodologies on an academic level. I began speaking at universities and conferences on new media and its role in the newsroom, and I wrote about my own methodologies for the Columbia Journalism Review. I became fascinated by news outlets that adopted new methods, as well as those journalists who were continuously on the defensive about how new media was somehow at war with traditional journalistic methods. Most of all, I found many journalists who understood exactly where I was coming from.
In May of 2013 I left EA Worldview, primarily to find new funding for my work. I was quickly hired as the managing editor for The Interpreter, a magazine started by the Institute of Modern Russia in order to study the opposition movement, domestic politics, and foreign policy of Russia. I also began to work more closely with Storyful’s “Open Newsroom,” an experiment which is, I’m proud to say, already having a measurable impact on the way the media reports the news.
Today, Dissected News (now reconstructed) will be relaunched. It will once again serve as a vehicle for my work on under-reported stories, primarily Syria, because there appear to be more journalists talking about Syria than there are journalists talking about what happens inside Syria. However, it will also serve as laboratory for new journalistic methodologies, and it will serve as a place to examine the practices of the media when it comes to covering difficult stories like the Syrian conflict.
Journalists like me should never replace traditional field journalism. We should supplement and inform it, just as NASA’s Mission Control informs and empowers astronauts, minimizing the risks while maximizing the effectiveness of pioneers and explorers who are increasingly in danger.
So stay tuned, and strap in, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.