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Need a Journalist? In Germany, There's an App for That

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, January 14 2014

Call a Journalist app (Cross & Lecker/Facebook)

Over the past weeks, the city of Hamburg in Germany was caught up in ongoing occasionally violent standoffs and demonstrations between left-wing protestors and the police over development plans in several poorer neighborhoods that have historically been centers for the city's counterculture, as the Atlantic Cities recently outlined.

The situation degenerated to a point that the police saw the need to establish a 4.6 square mile "danger zone" covering the affected areas, encompassing a population of 50,000, in which the police had the right to stop, question and frisk people without any concrete suspicion.

One catalyst for the crackdown was a disputed incident in late December in which police claimed that hooded protestors had surrounded a police precinct building, yelled insults at police and then attacked and injured officers coming out of the precinct with bottles and other objects. But a subsequent report in Der Spiegel raised questions about the police's initial account of the incident as a "concerted attack" on the precinct, with witnesses quoted in the article suggesting that none of the protesters were hooded, no bottle or rock attacks occurred and that initially a crowd of protesters had just verbally accosted police at a nearby intersection, not the precinct building. Police indicated to Der Spiegel that there was no security camera footage of the incident.

The danger zone has since been completely lifted after nine days. But in addition to spurring a warning from the U.S. embassy and on and off-line creative mockery, with protesters, in some cases encouraged by the Pirate Party, carrying "dangerous objects" such as toilet brushes and parsley, Twitter outcry and online petitions, the experience may also have prompted some longer-lasting journalistic innovation.

Mittendrin, a one-year-old online news outlet focused on covering central Hamburg, worked with media design agency Cross & Lecker and German data journalism design agency Open Data City to implement a Call a Journalist tool, allowing members of the public to alert the magazine's reporters to developing incidents worth covering.

Markus Gottschau, a developer for Cross & Lecker, and Marco Maas, journalist for Open Data City, originally came up with the idea and its implementation, with the help of freelance graphic designer Lukas Bischoff, a blog post from Mittendrin notes.

"The past few days have shown that many incidents are always occurring at many locations in the danger zone," deputy editor in chief Dominik Brueck wrote in a January 10 blog post. "Police controls, spontaneous demonstrations, police encirclements and other creative protests are happening across the area. Of course as journalists we can't be everywhere at once." He then describes how the Call a Journalist web app allows users to access the web app on their cell phones and press a button to notify journalists about an incident. The app uses the phone's GPS information to include location information in the notification. The user can also then receive back a notice that a reporter is on the way.

In a video interview with Lokalblogger, a blog focused on local online journalism, Brueck discussed the magazine reporters' and photographers' experiences interacting with police and activists in the danger zone. Aside from one incident in which a police officer ripped a press I.D. out of the hand of a photographer for the magazine who had refused to hand it over, he said that the relationship with the police had been mostly cordial and cooperative.

In the interview, he recalled that unlike other mainstream news outlets, the magazine refused to publish the initial police press statement on the alleged attack because nobody from the magazine had been present and there were no videos online confirming the attack. Noting that there had been online YouTube videos of an incident at the police station on an earlier day, he said that regarding the later incident, "it was Saturday night in the Kiez neighborhood, many people were around, you can't really tell me that nobody would haven taken out their cell phone to take a video [ of such an alleged incident]." Following further inquiries, Brueck in the interview said Mittendrin became the first Hamburg news outlet to publish a differing account from a lawyer in touch with witnesses denying the occurrence of the attack. "While the large media reported every night on riots, we didn't report that because we didn't see it," he said in the interview.

He further explained in the interview how the coders and designers of the Call the Journalist tool offered it for use to the magazine. "It fit exactly into what we were doing, namely always being on location, close to the unfolding events and showing what is really happening," he said in the interview. After the magazine "beta-tested" the tool among its own reporters, he said, it went live for the public. Through the tool, he said in the interview, the magazine received five alerts from inside the danger zone, "and in all five cases something in fact was happening on site." In one case, he noted, the reporters identified the "caller" who had used the tool, whose reaction was "Wow, you really do come." The incidents that the magazine received notice of included a sit-in protest that police sought to dissolve, he said, with one reporter heading over to that site by bike, while another remained at another demonstration. The magazine would not have been aware of that event, as well as other spontaneous demonstrations and police encirclements, without that tool, he said in the interview. He suggested that in a dangerous situation it was easier for a user to press the button than to figure out how to find and contact a reporter's cell phone number.

With the "danger zone" now over, he said in the interview that the magazine staff would now need to discuss in what ways to expand or limit use of the tool in the future, and how to integrate it into the daily life of the newsroom. Currently, he explained in the interview, the alert reporters receive consists only of the anonymous notification and the location. While he said he could imagine adding a messaging function, he added that it could be important to continue to allow for anonymous communication even in that case.

"The app allows journalists to go directly on scene," he said in the interview. "I think that has been lost a little bit with local journalism in the last few years, we sit at our desks a lot, read press releases and make calls ... but really as local journalists...we have the chance to go out again to the people and be on location." Asked if he was afraid of the tool's misuse, Brueck said that even a more trivial report about a pothole causing people to trip could end up being a worthwhile story, and emphasized the need to restore trust between journalists and readers. "I think especially at a time where information is becoming more and more confusing and differentiated, we need qualified journalists who can sort it out and put it in context, but to get information and impressions, we are more than ever dependent on our readers," he said in the interview.

"Especially in the case of a danger zone, we consider it very very important that we really only report on what we see and what we can check," editor in chief Isabella David told north German public broadcaster NDR.

Open Data City has also been involved with creating several other high-profile interactive journalism projects for the Guardian and German news outlets including a visualization of a fire at Yosemite, establishing the Lobbyplag platform highlighting similarities between lobbying documents and E.U. draft laws, visualizing the inaccessibility of YouTube videos in Germany, visualizing German train delay data, and most recently visualizing the locations of covert U.S. national security surveillance locations in Germany.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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