“MORE AND MORE JOURNALISTS ARE OPERATING AS ANCHORS — WORKING WITH A WHOLE SET OF ACTORS WHO ARE DOING JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY ON THEIR BEHALF.”
– Head of Multimedia Special Projects and Washington correspondent at the Guardian, Paul Lewis.
In his TED Conference on citizen journalism, Lewis proclaimed that social media is a tool for traditional news-gathering, not its replacement.
“There are far more benefits from a collaborative approach working in an engaged way with citizens than there are disadvantages”, he said.
Lewis worked on the cases of political refugee Jimmy Mubenga, whose 2010 death on an airplane was attributed to illness until Lewis and Matthew Taylor gathered crowdsourced information revealing he died of asphyxiation by security guards, and Ian Tomlinson, whose death at the 2009 G20 protests in London was officially said to be caused by a heart attack. Lewis collected footage from other people who’d been at the event to show that Tomlinson, a bystander, had been assaulted and killed by riot police.
Last week, the Metropolitan police issued an apology to Tomlinson’s family and admitted that his death was not the result of natural causes. “It’s fair to say,” says Lewis, “that there wouldn’t have been an apology, let alone an investigation and an inquest that found that Ian Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed, without the video footage given to me by a businessman in New York.”
Now the Washington correspondent at The Guardian, Lewis is still an advocate of citizen journalism, describing a hybrid world in which professionals can take advantage of all that the crowd has to offer. “More and more journalists are having to operate as anchors. They are filtering and deciphering information from a really broad range of sources; they are working with a whole set of actors who are doing journalistic inquiry on their behalf,” he says. It’s not as if citizen-generated material means that amateurs are suddenly in charge of the news; as Lewis says, old-fashioned industry practices still apply, particularly when it comes to developing stories and safeguarding against hoaxes.
For Lewis, social media is a tool for traditional news-gathering, not its replacement. Despite his success in using social media for journalism, he holds to the rules of the profession, including making contact with sources in person as much as possible. “The people who approach you online are just online identities up until the point that you meet them face to face,” he says. And while some companies claim to be able to verify the authenticity of photos received over the Internet, Lewis remains skeptical. According to him, technology can’t parse what’s real or what’s not; it’s up to journalists to develop relationships with their sources to determine what’s reliable.