Modern Reporters offer Power to the Public

26 Mar

“We need to know what happened there and whether it had anything to do with Ian’s death”

Wrote Paul Lewis in his Guardian report after Ian Tomlinson died of an alleged heart attack after getting caught up in the G20 protests, in April 2009.

Lewis’s report asked the public to have their say and within a few days, twenty reliable witnesses made contact. Nineteen were previously un-known and used social media to make contact.

This report referred to a man called Ian Tomlinson, 47, who had been walking home from work and un-knowingly passed through the police cordons of the G20 protest, just moments before he collapsed and died. Police said that he had died of a heart attack and the officers policing the protest had done their best to help him. They were not investigating any further.

An un-named organiser of the protest, interviewed for one of Lewis’s reports said, “We want to know what happened and we want to show our solidarity. We can’t accept that people can die inside a police cordon and for us to receive no information about it”.

A reconstruction of Tomlinson’s last 30 minutes was obtained from the witnesses. The most damning evidence was a video filmed by a New York hedge fund manager, just minutes before Tomlinson’s heart attack. It showed policemen hitting Tomlinson with batons and pushing him to the ground, leaving other members of public to help him back to his feet. Daniel873, a G20 protester, commented on a Guardian report,

“I also saw police hitting people from behind with their shields and batons…I remember thinking at the time that somebody could have been killed in that.”

 The testimony of the witnesses, were submitted to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The commission immediately launched a criminal investigation, leading to a post-mortem.

The post-mortem revealed Tomlinson had died of internal bleeding, not a heart attack.

For this investigation, Paul Lewis won a Rat Up a Drain Pipe award for outstanding investigative journalism in 2009, as well being named reporter of the year at the British Press Awards in March 2010. 

Lewis admitted in a Guardian report, “I wasn’t convinced about Twitter at first, but it quickly turned out to be quite useful for investigating”

This rounding up of the public through social media has become a useful tool for professional journalists and has now come to be known as “Crowdsourcing”.

 The term “Crowdsourcing” was coined by Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson in a 2006 edition of Wired magazine as, “the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call.”

In journalistic terms, this basically means using the public’s knowledge, to help with investigations. 

Robert Levy succinctly points out the importance of crowdsourcing for journalists, in Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace , “Since ‘no one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity’”.

Chris Roush, founding director of the Carolina Business News Initiative, emailed me the findings of a study he conducted this year. The study found that professional journalists were most likely to use social media to find sources, story leads and information and Twitter provided the most valuable sources of information.

Journalism which reports information found from social media has been viewed negatively at times. The reports of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 exemplified the unnecessary upset that can be caused when a journalist puts speed before accuracy. Many professional reports at the time included rumours of mass deaths, rapes and bus hijackings, which journalists found online but were later found to be un-true. 

Professional journalists have to be web savvy when reporting from online sources, as Walter Lippman, one of America’s most respected journalists, says in Public Opinion,

“If there is one subject on which editors are the most responsible, it is in their judgement of the reliability of the source”.

When used correctly, social media can be enormously useful.  I spoke via email with Tony Harcup, a professional journalist and author of Journalism: Principles and Practices, who pointed out the importance of getting the balance right,

“If social media makes journalists think that all stories can be generated without ever leaving a building, then it will be a bad thing…but if social media is used in conjunction with good reporting and investigative skills, then it can be very positive.”

The use of social media to report international events has been rising since Flickr, the photo sharing media tool, was launched in February 2004 and that year sparked widespread support for The Indian Ocean Tsunami. A wealth of images of the tsunami on this site opened journalists’ eyes to the strength of the publics’ photo journalism.

The next groundbreaking event was the Hudson River plane crash in 2009 which was one of the first international events reported via social media, as Janis Krums used his iPhone to post a photo and tweet the message,

“There’s a Plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy”

The Hudson River story continued to evolve through social media as it was reported via the online crowdsourcing newspaper, NowPublic.


In more recent developments, Crowdsourcing websites such as NowPublic,  intersect and storyful have become invaluable during events when people need to be reconnected with loved ones living in hazardous areas.

Most recently, since the nuclear plants were hit by the Japan Tsunami, a radiation map website called RDNT has been created by uncorked studios, which allows people to submit a radiation reading from where they are in order to map out worse affected areas.

“This ongoing crisis has highlighted the need for trusted sources,” the uncorked team say on their website, “With conflicting reports of radiation levels in affected areas, we wanted to build a way to report and see data in an unbiased format.”

This innovation has allowed the public to take matters into their own hands. Social media has provided the public with a tool which has aided other recent international events. Protests throughout the Middle East have been fuelled by the ability to plan protests via social networking sites such as Facebook.  Plus protesters have been able to get their message across to other countries through the increased media coverage.

People in the Middle East have even relied on social media to inform them on how the protests have progressed. MirHossein Mousavi, a man involved in the protests, summed up the force of social media with this tweet,

“We have no national press coverage in Iran, everyone should help spread Mousavi’s message. One Person = One Broadcaster”.

Mousavi’s words are strong. But the freedom of speech that social media has allowed should not promote the idea that professional journalists are no longer needed.

When I spoke via email to Rosie Swash, a Guardian journalist, about her impression of how social media has shaped journalism she said,

“The power is now distributed between the journalist and those on the ground. That kind of balance is crucial in journalism and of great value.”

Rosie is referring to the power journalists used to hold when they were the only ones with access to the news. As Friend and Singer point out in Online Journalism Ethics: Traditions and Transitions,

“The journalist’s role has now become modified, they must become expert searchers and synthesisers of information in an easily digestible format.”

This means professional journalists are still important for their reliability and for their sharp and efficient writing skills but now there is more of a democracy within the world of journalism.

The worse thing a professional journalist could do at this time is to ignore the wealth of information available through social media. Instead they must offers power to the public, and work with them to create powerful journalism.

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