@PaulLewis, Investigative Journalism in the Age of Twitter

by Fabio Chiusi

Paul Lewis is an example of what it means to be an investigative journalist in 2012: watch the event unfold with your own eyes, live-tweet it, get information and clues from other Twitter users, contact those sources, dig deeper. Combined with the endless possibilities of data journalism, these skills proved to be crucial to understand the riots that spread throughout the UK last summer. But Lewis, who is special projects editor at The Guardian, thinks this also means that all of this would be impossible without citizens recording and sharing what they see. In other words, without citizens becoming journalists themselves. A new and challenging news ecosystem. The International Journalism Festival spoke to Lewis on the phone. Paul Lewis will be a speaker at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy on Saturday 28 April 2012.

Mr. Lewis, your use of social media has been crucial to understand what was going on during the August riots, and to question official truths in the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jimmy Mubenga. Beyond you personal experience, how important is citizen journalism in today’s news ecosystem?
It’s increasingly important, and in many ways there’s a fundamentally transformed relationship between journalists and people who read or consume what we produce. In the Twentieth century model journalists provided what they deemed to be the truth about stories, they imparted their knowledge to a passive audience. It’s a very different situation from the one we have now, where we’re moving towards a model where the audience is active, engaging with the journalists and can help in a collaborative way to produce the news. So look at the way in which we are able to cover events in the Middle East, to the kind of instinctive response a newsroom can have to a big terrorist attack or a significantly unexpected event, I think we will all now seek to use the eyes and ears of people on the ground who can help us tell the story.

But what does it mean exactly to be a ‘citizen journalist’? Does posting on Twitter about a big event make someone a journalist?
I don’t know if it makes him a journalist, but there’s an argument that they are doing journalism. I think journalists in the past quite exaggerated the degree of professionalism and expertise to their role. The thing that the digital age transformed is that now anybody can record events, and then share them, self-publish. That process, recording and sharing, is fundamental, something journalism is about too. So although someone who, say, ‘he sees a car crash outside the house, record it on a mobile phone and then post it to YouTube – I wouldn’t call him a journalist’, I would say they are doing journalism. Something, if you prefer, we are calling citizen journalism.

How are journalists reacting to all of this? Are they scared?
Some are scared, but it’s shifting recently. People were complaining that they would be usurped, the idea was that we were somehow being rendered irrelevant, or redundant even – because why do you need to pay people if it can be done for free? But many realized it isn’t necessarily something they should fear. In fact, they have far more resources to work with, and they can collaborate with far more people. In terms of the availability of information, it’s exponentially increasing. For people who trade in information, that’s a really good thing. Think of really significant events, from the death of Bin Laden to the death of Gaddafi. Those events were told through a lens, not just by journalists who arrived on the ground maybe one or two days after, but by individuals who where there witnessing it, recording it and disseminating information about it as it happened. This means we have richer and deeper information to tell these stories.

Important news outlets, such as AP, the BBC and SkyNews, recently wrote down some guidelines their journalists have to adopt when using Twitter. Does the Guardian do the same? And what do you think about this?
We do have some guidelines, I wouldn’t call them rules. I think we are forward-thinking, in the way that we encourage our journalists to use social media. Because if you are too restrictive and you have too much of a corporate policy on something like this, and you don’t trust the individuals to make the right decisions, then it becomes less engaging. The point of social media is to be social, and people need to have personalities and identities, and although that is anathema to a slightly older and traditional view of journalists as entirely objective – or considered as such – that has ceased. You have to show your view sometimes, and use your perspective on the story. We’d rather just be open about where journalists are coming from. Our general policy is to empower people, and trust that they will us technology at its most effective.

Can you break stories on your personal account?
Yes. It very much depends on the story. In some way it’s the quickest way of notifying the news desk as well as others. If you accept that Twitter isn’t just a platform where an individual is communicating but it’s a form of broadcast for a news organization as well. If I say something significant of newsworthy about an event, then it’s arguably the Guardian saying that too. A good example would be the verdict in a Court case. In the past, the first thing journalists would do is they would run outside the Court and phone at the news desk as quick as they could. Now we would tweet it. And why wouldn’t we? I mean, it’s the quickest way to inform the news desk, it also means that the Guardian can be the first delivering that verdict.

Together with the LSE, the Guardian analyzed more than 2.6 million tweets published during the riots. With two major findings, the first being that Twitter was not involved in organizing the riots. In your Guardian piece you wonder why «so many people, from the Prime Minister to the acting head of the Metropolitan police, blamed the social networking site for spreading the disorder». PM Cameron even proposed a ban on social media. Back then you gave no answers as to why this happened. Have you got one now? Why did everyone blame Twitter in the first place?
That’s a really good question. It’s a kind of association. Twitter was at the forefront of the way in which people were interpreting the riots, it was a widely tweeted event – probably the most tweeted event in the UK ever. It was a hugely significant moment, and put in that context people conflated the way in which people were communicating about what was happening, and the way in which people were organizing. There were a few minor examples of people using Facebook at the time, and so then it gets translated into ‘people used social media, Facebook and Twitter’. It was a lazy assumption, but you have to realize as well that this was in the midst of an emergency and a crisis, and panic. This means that people jumped to quick conclusions but it also means that people looked for anything they could blame for what was going on. And on this occasion it was an easy target.

The study concluded – and this is the second major finding – that Twitter was not only involved in spreading false information, but also in dispelling it, usually within 2-3 hours. Do you think this debunking power of the Twitter community is overlooked in mainstream media reporting?
There’s a strong argument that it has been under-reported. It like any other form of communication. Newspapers have been used, suggestively, to spread rumours too fast, as have emails or text messages. You can back further enough, to pamphlets that were used to encourage people to riot several hundred years ago. The fact that you have a new quicker form of communication, in which rumors spread more quickly, I guess it’s not surprising. But what is new is the fact that you have this crowd-sourcing element, where the crowd online has the capacity to self-regulate. And actually, when there is something serious happening, like widespread civil disorder, people feel a civic duty, they wanted clear, precise information to be shared. And in that context many people are much more keen on trying to help work out what is true and what is wrong, than they are to simply pass alone the chain of information that might be inaccurate. And so what was most interesting for us – when looking at data sets – was actually how that happened, how rumors would exist as they would have, but they were going to be short-lived because the community very quickly worked out that they weren’t true.

Is the use of social media in citizen journalism evolving?
Absolutely. Take the example of the death of Ian Tomlinson. I signed up to Twitter two days before the G20 protest in which he died, and that was only three years ago. And the technology at the time was only at an embryonic stage, as a few people adopted it. So I think we’re extremely early stages and we’ll have very many chapters in this saga, and it will evolve and change, undoubtedly there will be new technologies that come to the fore. So that is happening. I think, if we are honest to ourselves, it’s actually up and down as well, and there are some negative consequences potentially if we’re not careful, if we over-rely on citizen journalism material, and we think that we can report stories from the office. Thankfully that’s not happening at the Guardian, but I do think there’s a risk there. One of the important evolutions would be trying to work out how you balance collaborating with people who might have useful information for you and doing the basic but absolutely crucial on the ground reporting which journalism is fundamentally most about.