Category Archives: twitter

Investigating Mubenga’s death (How “citizen journalism” aided two major Guardian scoops part 3)

This is the final part of a guest post by Paul Lewis that originally appeared in the book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? You can read the introduction here and the second part – on the investigation of Ian Tomlinson’s death – here.

Mubenga’s death had been similarly “public”, occurring on a British Airways commercial flight to Angola surrounded by passengers. As with Tomlinson, there was a misleading account of the death put out by the authorities, which we felt passengers may wish to contest. Within days, open journalism established that Mubenga had been handcuffed and heavily restrained by guards from the private security firm G4S. He had been complaining of breathing prior to his collapse. After the investigation was published, three G4S guards were arrested and, at the time of writing, remained on bail and under investigation by the Met’s homicide unit.

Our strategy for finding out more about Mubenga’s death centred on two approaches, both aided by Twitter. The BA flight, which had been due to depart on 12 October, was postponed for 24 hours, and by the time we began investigating the following day the passengers had left Heathrow and were on route to Angola’s capital, Luanda. Raising our interest in the story via Twitter, we asked for help in locating someone who could visit the airport to interview disembarking passengers.

A freelance did just that, and managed to speak to one who said he had seen three security guards forcibly restrain Mubenga in his seat. We instantly shared that breakthrough, in the hope that it would encourage more passengers to come forward. At the same time we were publishing what we knew about the case, while being candidly open about what we did not know.

Hence the very article, published before any passengers had been tracked down, stated: “There was no reliable information about what led to the man’s death of how he became unwell.” It added, perhaps controversially: “In the past, the Home Office’s deportation policy has proved highly controversial.”

The tone was necessarily speculative, and designed to encourage witnesses to come forward. So too were the tweets. “Man dies on Angolan flight as UK tries to deport him. This story could be v big,” said one.

This articles and tweets, contained relevant search-able terms – such as the flight number – so that they could serve as online magnets, easily discoverable for any passengers with important information and access to the internet. Another tweet said: “Please contact me if you were on BA flight 77 to Angola – or know the man in this story.”

One reply came from Twitter user @mlgerstmann, a passenger on the flight who felt inappropriate force was used against Mubenga. He had come across the tweet – and then read the article – after basic Google searches. “I was also there on BA77 and the man was begging for help and I now feel so guilty I did nothing,” he tweeted.

Within hours, his shocking account of Mubenga’s death was published alongside several other passengers who had found us via the internet. An interactive graphic of the seating arrangements on the aircraft was created, enabling users to listen to audio clips of the passengers give personal accounts of what they had seen.

How verification was crucial

As with the Tomlinson investigation, verification, something paid journalists do better than their volunteer counterparts, was crucial. The fact the passengers had disseminated to remote parts of Africa – @mlgerstmann was on an oil-rig – explains why the only way to contact them was through an open, Twitter-driven investigation.

But this methodology also poses problems for authenticating the validity of sources. Journalists are increasingly finding that a danger inherent in opening up the reporting process is that they become more susceptible to attempts to mislead or hoax. This is particularly the case with live-blogs which need regular updates, require authors to make split-second decisions about the reliability of information and take care to caveat material when there are questions.

For journalists with more time, it is incumbent, therefore, to apply an equal if not more rigorous standard of proof when investigating in the open. In the Tomlinson case, when sources were encountered through the internet it was mostly possible to arrange meetings in person. That was not possible when investigating Mubenga, where there was an attempt by a bogus passenger to supply us false information.

In lieu of face to face meetings, we were able to use other means, such as asking prospective sources to send us copies of their airline tickets, to verify their accounts. What the investigations into the deaths of both Tomlinson and Mubenga show is that journalists don’t always need to investigate into the dark. Through sharing what they do know, they are most likely to discover what they don’t.

Disproving the police account of Tomlinson’s death (How “citizen journalism” aided two major Guardian scoops part 2)

This is the second of a three-part guest post by Paul Lewis that originally appeared in the book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? You can read the first part here.

The investigation into Tomlinson’s death began in the hours after his death on 1 April 2009, and culminated, six days later, in the release of video footage showing how he had been struck with a baton and pushed to the ground by a Metropolitan police officer, Simon Harwood. The footage, shot by an American businessman, was accompanied by around twenty detailed witness accounts and photographs of the newspaper seller’s last moments alive and successfully disproved the police’s explanation of the death.

The result was a criminal investigation, a national review of policing, multiple parliamentary inquiries and, by May 2011, an inquest at which a jury concluded Tomlinson had been “unlawfully killed”. At the time of writing, Harwood, who was on the Met’s elite Territorial Support Group, was awaiting trial for manslaughter.

In media studies, the case was viewed as a landmark moment for so-called “citizen journalism”. Sociologists Greer and Laughlin argue the Tomlinson story revealed a changing narrative, in which the powerful – in this case, the police – lost their status of “primary definers” of a controversial event.

Significantly, it was the citizen journalist and news media perspective, rather than the police perspective, that was assimilated into and validated by the official investigations and reports. Ultimately, it was this perspective that determined “what the story was”, structured the reporting of “what had happened and why” and drove further journalistic investigation and criticism of the Metropolitan Police Services.

The initial account of Tomlinson’s death put out by police was that he died of a heart attack while walking home from work in the vicinity of the protests, and that protesters were partly to blame for impeding medics from delivering life-saving treatment. Neither of these claims were true, but they fed into coverage that was favourable to police.

A public relations drive by the Met and City of London police was bolstered by “off the record” briefings to reporters that suggested – also wrongly – that Tomlinson’s family were not surprised by his death and upset by internet speculation it could be suspicious. These briefings contributed to a broader media narrative that endorsed police and criticised protesters.

How the police account left so many questions unanswered

The morning after father of nine died, the newspaper he had been selling outside Monument tube station, the Evening Standard, carried the headline: “Police pelted with bricks as they help dying man.” But it was plain to us, even at an early stage, that there could be more to the story. The overlydefensive police public relations campaign gave the impression there was something to hide. Embedded in the small-print of press releases, there were clues – such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission’s notification of the death – that left unanswered questions.

Most obviously, anyone who had ventured near to the protests near the Bank of England on the evening Tomlinson died would have known he collapsed in the midst of violent clashes with police. It seemed implausible, even unlikely, that the death of a bystander would not have been connected in some way to the violence. But pursuing this hunch was not easy, given the paucity of reliable information being released by police, who at times actively discouraged us from investigating the case.

All that was known about Tomlinson in the 48 hours after his death was that he had been wearing a Millwall football t-shirt. That, though, was enough to begin pursuing two separate lines of inquiry. One involved old school “shoe leather”; trawling through notepads to identify anyone who may have been in the area, or know someone who was, who could identify Tomlinson from press photographs of him lying unconscious on the ground.

That yielded one useful eye-witness, with photographic evidence of Tomlinson alive, with images of him walking in apparent distress, and lying at the feet of riot police 100 yards from where he would eventually collapse. Why was Tomlinson on the ground twice, in the space of just a few minutes? And if those photographs of the father of nine stumbling near police officers, moments before his death, were put online, would anyone make the connection?

Becoming part of a virtual G20 crowd

The answer was yes, as a direct result of the second line of inquiry: by open sharing information online, both through internet stories and Twitter, we became part of a virtual G20 crowd that had coalesced online to question the circumstances of his death. In this environment, valuable contributions to the debate, which were more sceptical in tone than those adopted by other media organisations, worked like online magnets for those who doubted the official version of events. Twitter proved crucial to sharing information with the network of individuals who had begun investigating the death of their own accord.

I had signed-up to the social media website two days before the protest, and became fascinated with the pattern of movement of “newsworthy” tweets. For example, a YouTube video uploaded by two protesters who did not see the assault on Tomlinson, but did witness his collapse minutes later and strongly disputed police claims that officers treating him were attacked with bottles, was recommended to me within seconds of being uploaded. Minutes later, Twitter investigators had identified the protesters in the film and, shortly after that, found their contact details.

Similarly, those concerned to document Tomlinson’s last moments alive, including associates of the anarchist police-monitoring group Fitwatch, were using the internet to organise.

Through Twitter I discovered there were Flickr albums with hundreds of photographs of the vicinity of this death, and dissemination of blog-posts that speculated on how he may have died. None of these images of course could be taken at face value, but they often contained clues, and where necessary the crowd helped locate, and contact, the photographer.

Journalists often mistakenly assume they can harness the wisdom of an online crowd by commanding its direction of travel. On the contrary, in digital journalism, memes (namely, concepts that spread via the internet) take their own shape organically, and often react with hostility to anyone who overtly seeks to control their direction. This is particularly the case with the protest community, which often mistrusts the so-called mainstream media. Hence it was incumbent on me, the journalist, to join the wider crowd on an equal playing-field, and share as much information as I was using as the investigation progressed.

Establishing authenticity and context

There were times, of course, when we had to hold back important material; we resisted publishing images of Tomlinson at the feet of riot police for four days, in order to establish properly their authenticity and context.

Internet contact usually does not suffice for verification, and so I regularly met with sources. I asked the most important witnesses to meet me at the scene of Tomlinson’s death, near the Bank of England, to walk and talk me through what they had seen. We only published images and video that we had retrieved directly from the source and later verified.

A different standard applies to sharing images already released on Twitter, where journalists such as National Public Radio’s Andy Carvin in the US have proven the benefits from sharing information already in the public domain to establish its significance and provenance. The break, though, as with most scoops, was partly the result of good luck, but not unrelated to the fact that our journalism had acquired credibility in the online crowd.

Chris La Jaunie, an investment fund manager, who had recorded the crucial footage of Harwood pushing Tomlinson on a digital camera, had become part of that crowd too, having spent days monitoring coverage on the internet from his office in New York. He knew the footage he had was potentially explosive. The options available to Mr La Jaunie were limited. Fearing a police cover-up, he did not trust handing over the footage. An alternative would have been to release the video onto YouTube, where would it lack context, might go unnoticed for days and even then could not have been reliably verified.

He said he chose to contact me after coming to the conclusion that ours was the news organisation which had most effectively interrogated the police version of events. It was more than a year later that my colleague Matthew Taylor and I began inquiring into the death of Mubenga. By then we had recognised the potential reach of Twitter for investigative journalism and our decision to openly investigate the death of the Angolan failed asylum seeker was a deliberate one.

Not all investigations are suited to transparent digging, and, indeed, many stories still demand top secrecy. This has been true for the three outstanding UK investigations of our times: the Telegraph’s MPs’ expenses scandal and, at the Guardian, the investigations into files obtained by WikiLeaks and phone-hacking by the News of the World. However, Tomlinson had shown that open investigations can succeed, and there were parallels with the death of Mubenga.

In the third and final part, published tomorrow, Lewis explains how he used Twitter to pursue that investigation into the death of Jimmy Mubenga, and the crucial role of verification.

Paul Lewis: How “citizen journalism” aided two major Guardian scoops (guest post)

In a guest post for the Online Journalism Blog, Paul Lewis shows how Twitter helped the Guardian in its investigations into the deaths of news vendor Ian Tomlinson at the London G20 protests and Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan detainee, while he was being deported from Heathrow.

This originally appeared in the book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive?, which also includes another chapter previously published on the blog: Has investigative journalism found its feet online?.

Investigative journalists traditionally work in the shadows, quietly squirrelling away information until they have gathered enough to stand-up their story. That silence reassures sources, guarantees targets do not discover they are being scrutinised and, perhaps most importantly, prevents competitors from pinching the scoop.

But an alternative modus operandi is insurgent. It is counter-intuitive to traditionalist mind-set, but far more consistent with the prevailing way readers are beginning to engage with news.

Investigating in the open means telling the people what you are looking for and asking them to help search. It means telling them what you have found, too, as you find it. It works because the ease with which information can be shared via the internet, where social-media is enabling collaborative enterprise between paid journalists and citizens who are experts in their realm.

Journalism has historically been about the hunt for sources, but this open method reverses that process, creating exchanges of information through which sources can seek out journalists. There are drawbacks, of course. This approach can mean forfeiting the short-term scoop. At times, the journalist must lose control of what is being investigated, how and by whom, and watch from a distance as others make advances on their story.

They have to drop the fallacy that their job title bestows upon them a superior insight to others. But all these are all worthwhile sacrifices in the context of what can be gained.

This is illustrated by Guardian investigations into the deaths of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper seller who died at the London G20 protests in 2009, and Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan detainee who died while being deported from Heathrow on 12 October 2010. In both cases, eliciting cooperation through the internet – particularly Twitter – allowed us to successfully challenge the official accounts of the deaths.

In the second part Lewis explains how he used Twitter and Flickr to pursue his investigation into the death of Ian Tomlinson.

UPDATE: The stories described in these posts can also be seen in this video of Paul speaking at the TEDx conference in Thessaloniki:

#TalkToTeens – When stories are more important than people

Here we go again.

I’ve been re-reading Kovach and Rosenstiel’s ‘Elements of Journalism’ recently and happened to be in the middle of the chapter on ‘Who journalists work for’ when this popped up in my Twitter stream.

Kovach and Rosenstiel make a simple point, and an increasingly important one: we don’t just tell stories for the sake of it; we do so because we are serving a community.

The story about Charlotte Berry, an assistant headteacher who swore in person-to-person conversations on Twitter is one example of a story which misses this point, and as a result has generated a backlash across Twitter, largely inspired by this post (currently read over 15,000 times) that makes some strong points about the public interest value of the story:

“They knew the ‘inappropriate language’ was jokey banter, between grown-ups, entirely unconnected to the school. They knew that’s what people do on Twitter, they joke and swear and let their hair down. Like this tweet from 17 August, after a football match: “Best moment from last night, the dear old lady 3 rows behind…’bowyer you dirty c@#*!” (in case you’re not sure what c@#* means, it’s ‘cunt’). That tweet wasn’t by @talktoteens, by the way. It was by @SamSmith68, the journalist on the Billericay Gazette.”

And about its target and likely effect:

“Charlotte Berry isn’t just any teacher. She’s a wellspring of energy, commitment and ideas, the sort of teacher you dream your kids will end up with. She runs a role model project for teenage girls, enabling them to meet inspiring professional women. She started a Historypin project in the school, bringing younger and older people together to share stories of their lives in the area. Even her Twitter name, @talktoteens, tells you something about her: she’s an advocate of communicating with kids, engaging them, not writing them off.”

These things, of course, didn’t matter. Because it was A Story. And sometimes – too often – we forget that A Story should have A Purpose.

This story, by a student who was helped by Charlotte Berry, is a story with a point, for example.

Credit to the head of Billericay School who responded pithily to the story as follows:

“The member of staff’s Twitter account appears to have been individually targeted, accessing conversations with friends unconnected with the school and taken completely out of context.

And credit to the newspaper for including that, albeit in the final paragraphs, and with comments now disabled. Although there are some interesting comments on the website’s forum

UPDATE: The forum has not approved any comments since Saturday evening – this post about the disconnect between print and online operations may explain why.

Comment on the story

Chart showing tweets mentioning talktoteens during Friday

Chart showing tweets mentioning talktoteens during Friday

VIDEO: Neal Mann on using Twitter as a journalist

Twi weeks ago I interviewed the journalist Neal Mann following a Q&A session with MA students at City University. Video of both the interview (3 clips of 1-2 minutes each) and the Q&A (around 25 minutes) are embedded below. These are also published under a Creative Commons licence so you can remix them if you wish (please let me know if you do).

Here they are:

When will we stop saying “Pictures from Twitter” and “Video from YouTube”?

Image from YouTube

Image from YouTube

Over the weekend the BBC had to deal with the embarrassing ignorance of someone in their complaints department who appeared to believe that images shared on Twitter were “public domain” and “therefore … not subject to the same copyright laws” as material outside social networks.

A blog post, from online communities adviser Andy Mabbett, gathered thousands of pageviews in a matter of hours before the BBC’s Social Media Editor Chris Hamilton quickly responded:

“We make every effort to contact people, as copyright holders, who’ve taken photos we want to use in our coverage.

“In exceptional situations, ie a major news story, where there is a strong public interest in making a photo available to a wide audience, we may seek clearance after we’ve first used it.”

(Chris also published a blog post yesterday expanding on some of the issues, the comments on which are also worth reading)

The copyright issue – and the existence of a member of BBC staff who hadn’t read the Corporation’s own guidelines on the matter – was a distraction. What really rumbled through the 170+ comments – and indeed Andy’s original complaint – was the issue of attribution.

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A quick note to Louise Mensch: sunlight is the best disinfectant

Plenty of others have given their own opinion on MP Louise Mensch’s suggestion that authorities should be able to shut down social media during civil unrest, so I just want to add a couple of experiences:

Here’s the first: when rumours spread about children being kidnapped in supermarket toilets, they first spread by text message (not social media). When they spread via the semi-public Facebook, it was easier for others to raise questions or debunk them. On Twitter – a much more public medium – it seems even harder for rumour to get a foothold.

I’ve written before about similar rumours and how journalists can and do play a role in debunking them.

I’ve also written about the potential for automated debunking. The less ‘social’ a medium, the harder it is to create these automated services, and the harder it is to distribute facts.

Finally, I’ve written about how journalists can use the qualities of social media itself to more easily separate rumour from fact.

Gossip and rumour don’t need social media to spread. Removing social media – in my experience (and that of the police, apparently) – just makes it harder to spot, and debunk.

How a musician and a Sikh TV channel dominated coverage of the Birmingham riots

Man holding bag of Tesco value rice

One image from last night guaranteed not to have made it onto the front page - via Birmingham Riots 2011

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.
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Q: Who owns a journalist’s Twitter account? A: The users

Screengrab of Laura Kuenssberg's Twitter settings renamed to ITV

image from Tom Callow's Wall blog

When Laura Kuenssberg announced she was leaving the BBC for ITV, much was made of what might happen to her Twitter account. Was @BBCLauraK owned by her employer? (After all, it was branded as such, promoted on TV, and tweets were ‘processed’ by BBC producers). Or should Laura be able to take it with her? (After all, it was Laura that people were following, rather than a generic BBC political news feed).

The implications for the ‘journalist as brand‘ meme were well explored too, while newly empowered journalists may have been concerned to read that companies are inserting social media clauses into contracts:

“To keep hold of the good will created by a brand personality. Recruiters, for example, are often required to hand over their LinkedIn accounts upon leaving, so their contacts remain with the employer.”

Amidst all the speculation, Tom Callow stood out in offering some hard facts:

“When she had earlier tweeted the details of a new separate ITV account to her then 59,000 followers, only around 1,000 of them started following the new account.”

This sounds compelling until you remember that tweets are only seen for a relatively brief period of time by those followers who happen to be watching at that moment, and that a significant proportion of followers of celebrity/high profile accounts are likely to be idle or spam.

Still, it also highlights the fundamental weakness in all the debates about who ‘owns’ a Twitter account. One very important party is not being represented: the users.

Much of the commentary on Laura Kuenssberg’s move treated her 60,000 followers as an “audience”. But of course, they are not: they are users.

Some will be personal acquaintances; some will be fans of the BBC’s political coverage; and yes, some will be spam accounts or accounts set up by curious BBC viewers who forgot their password the next day. Some will follow her to ITV, some will follow her replacement at the BBC, and some never worked out how to click ‘unfollow’. (Kuenssberg’s successor – @BBCNormanS – had 5,824 followers after she tweeted a link, according to Paul Gregory, which means that only around 10% of her followers read either of those tweets and acted on them.)

Whether an employer claims ownership of a social media account or not, they cannot ‘own’ the relationship between users and that account. And there will be as many relationships as users. Some passive; some collaborative; some neglected; some exploitative.

It is those relationships that we should be concerned with developing, not the small print of an employee’s contract.

Learning about community strategies: 10 lessons

Back in February I blogged about the process of teaching journalism students to think about working with communities. The results have been positive: even where the strategy itself wasn’t successful, the individuals have learned from its execution, its research, or both. And so, for those who were part of this process – and anyone else who’s interested – I thought I would summarise 10 key themes that came through the resulting work.

1. A community strategy isn’t something you can execute effectively in one month

Perhaps the number one lesson that people drew from the experience was that they should have started early, and done little, often, rather than a lot all at once. There was a tendency to underestimate the needs of community management and a need for better time management.

Communities needed time to “grow organically”, wrote one; it wasn’t a top down approach. Members might also have felt they were being “manipulated” when weeks of inactivity were followed by a flood of posts, links and questions.

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