It’s one thing to cover rioting on the doorstep of the national press – it’s quite another when squeezed regional newsrooms have to do the same. And as rioting in the UK spread from London to Birmingham and then other cities, some unlikely suspects showed how to cover a riot online even when you don’t have a newsroom.
Dominating online coverage in Birmingham was not a local newspaper or broadcaster but a Tumblr site – Birmingham Riots 2011 – set up by musician Casey Rain. Over dozens of entries Casey posted countless reports of what was taking place, and a range of photos and video footage which dwarfed the combined coverage of regional press and broadcast.
Adopting the ‘publish, then filter‘ principle of online journalism, he continuously acknowledged the dozens of unfounded rumours going around. In doing so, however, he also provided a way to quickly separate the rumour from fact.
On Monday evening, for example, the site published an image of a rioter kicking a policeman – said to have been taken in Birmingham that night. Within an hour it had already been correctly identified as being taken in London in March.
The next day, however, the same image was incorrectly captioned on the front page of the Birmingham Mail and the centre spread of The Guardian, along with many other newspapers.
Casey, of course, isn’t a journalist, but he clearly cared passionately about informing his community. As a result, from a standing start he became the focal point of a network of people exchanging information about the riots, managing correspondence from people across multiple channels.
By publishing and then filtering, Casey acknowledged that the information was already out there, added notes of scepticism, and provided a means for others to confirm or debunk it. It was notable how the quality of his coverage improved from the first to the second day: a steep learning curve for anyone.
Meanwhile, a small Sikh television channel on Sky Channel 847 and Justin.tv was also pioneering a unique style of “guerilla” broadcasting based on a similar passion for its community as rioting spread to the Black Country. (Chris Unitt described it as “the Sex Pistols to data journalism’s prog rock”).
Sangat TV’s website crashed due to high demand and they shifted to hosting their stream on Amazon’s servers. Meanwhile, some clips were filmed by viewers and posted on YouTube.
At one point the camera crew gave a lift to police pursuing rioters, the reporter commentating that they were “Serving the community”. It’s an action that challenges traditional notions of journalistic impartiality:
What is striking about the channel is how clearly it sees its role being embedded in the community: frequently giving a voice to its members; fearlessly filming events that affect it. In print and broadcast, that would be a disadvantage, limiting its market. Online, it gives the channel and its presenters a personality and unique flavour that users responded to.
In contrast, when the BBC reported, briefly, on Birmingham’s riots there was a flurry of tweets complaining about the reporter getting street names wrong. “Clueless stringer“; “Eedgit … Hysterical bullshit“; “Have you ever *been* to Birmingham, fella?”
An image of the ‘decapitated’ bull was also posted on Birmingham Riots 2011 – but was quickly debunked.
And so on the one hand we had those who were looking at the story, and on the other those who were looking at the community; between product and process; content and context; impartiality and passion.
I’m not claiming that one approach is better than the other: broadcasters and bloggers have different audiences, different processes, and different concerns.
There’s room for both approaches – indeed, I would argue that it’s better to have both. All I want to do here is note that difference, and perhaps suggest that as journalists we should be more aware of that – especially when it comes to avoiding mistakes often made in covering an event or place we are not familiar with.