Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NYT Photo Project Encourages Citizen Journalism

All pictures submitted, like the one above, have a Creative Commons license.

On November 1, 2006, William Drenttel and Jay Rosen launched the Polling Place Photo Project, an opportunity for ordinary citizens to photograph their polling places on election day and submit pictures online. The project's founder, Drenttel, enlisted the help of well-known media guru and friend Rosen. “He inspired and supported it,” says Drenttel. The friends discussed possibilities over lunch and executed the idea a few weeks later in time for the 2006 midterm elections.

Drenttel is a partner at Winterhouse Studio, a graphic design and editing company in Connecticut. He also co-founded the Design Observer, a blog about design and visual culture.

The New York Times and the Huffington Post both became interested in working with the Polling Place Project. Drenttel negotiated with the Huffington Post, but he said ultimately it "seemed too partisan for a project supposed to be non-partisan."

The Polling Place Photo Project was adopted by the New York Times in 2007 and subsequently re-named the New York Times Polling Place Photo Project. Today, Drenttel still oversees the site's content. "We approve every picture here in my office. It's designed to be a part of the New York Times and they helped a lot to make it better," says Drentell.

The goal of the project is to document what happens in polling places across the United States on Election Day. In the idea's preliminary stages, Rosen wondered, “Would anyone participate? What does it take to get people to cooperate?” These basic questions encouraged the construction of a project in which people can easily upload pictures without written requirements. Participants can add captions if they so desire and there are a series of questions to answer. The required effort is minimal in order to encourage the highest level of participation.

The goal of the project was to create a picture record of what happens in polling places and see to what degree people would become involved. According to Rosen, "There's a limit to what people will contribute beyond the basic request. People will participate, but not always as you thought."

The idea is based on an open platform, meaning anyone can participate. Citizens with the ability to operate a camera, who are enthusiastic about capturing their voting experience, can contribute. Simply put, the project is an experiment in citizen journalism.

Bianca Strzelczyk, a senior journalism major at Northeastern University , took pictures of the polling place at Northeastern's Matthews Arena for the 2008 primaries. She said it was convenient because she voted and then photographed campaign signs outside the venue.

"It opens up a door for more citizen journalism I feel and it's going to be interesting to see in four years, during the next presidential election, how much bigger it gets. If it gets bigger. Or if people just aren't interested in being citizen journalists," says Strzelczyk.

Andrea Kulish also photographed her polling place for the 2008 Primaries last spring. Kulish, a resident of Roslindale, Mass., took pictures of Roslindale Public Library and Phineas Bates Elementary School.

"I was feeling a little shy that day and I felt like they may not allow me to," explains Kulish in reference to why she didn't snap some shots inside.

Despite Kulish's hesitation about photographing inside, the Polling Place Photo Project has many examples of citizens who did just that. Enter specific search terms on the home page or select a state you want to find pictures of. There are pictures of everything from voters marking their paper ballot to individuals campaigning to long lines of people waiting.

The Citizen Media Law Project, based at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, reminds citizens that laws regarding photographing polling places vary state to state. Although citizen journalism is encouraged by the Citizen Media Law Project, citizens should ensure they're educated on the laws surrounding Election Day recording. Sam Bayard, assistant director of the Citizen Media Law Project, hopes his work will educate people so they know what they're getting into. "Different laws state to state can be very confusing," says Bayard. Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas ban recording of any kind within polling places. Bayard recommends citizens be aware of legal issues and be courteous to others during the process.

Legal policies aren't the most prevalent issue surrounding the New York Times Polling Place Photo Project and citizen journalism in general.

Bill Lancaster, a communications professor at Northeastern University, supports the New York Time's Polling Place Photo Project and similar ideas which encourage citizen journalism. Lancaster's recent documentary, That's News to Me, analyzes citizen and mainstream journalism in a technologically advancing society. He explains that ordinary people are using digital technology as a tool to express their opinions and cover the news.

“Digital media came of age in terms of citizen journalists with the devastating tsunami of several winters ago. I think that was to blogging what the JFK assassination was to broadcast news television," comments Lancaster.

There is no doubt that citizen journalism is earning an increasingly significant role in the media world, but it's difficult to determine the value of the New York Times Polling Place Project. With almost 6,000 pictures in its archive, the project has collected and documented elections all over the country in the past two years. What impact did it have on the 2008 presidential election, if any? It's difficult to tell and even its founders have found the results inconclusive.

Jay Rosen says “We didn’t become important in this election because in the end it wasn’t a close election. You can imagine if we did have problems.” Imagine a serious problem occured in a polling venue on election day; the pictures could potentially serve as evidence of what happened and be used to point out flaws in our voting system. So far, the project has documented the country's voting process and allowed citizens to capture democracy in its truest and most basic form.

“The New York Times Polling Place, as harmless as it might be, is an indication of where we’re heading. The desire for individuals to report the news and share their stories, pictures and opinions- that’s not going away," says Lancaster. "And nor is main stream journalism going away. So, I believe the new model is going to be a melding of the two.”

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