How journalist Paul Lewis helped solve two murders using social media

Aug 14, 2013 /

With more and more regular Joes snapping photos in the street, live-tweeting breaking news from the ground, and acting as free sources of political, economic and cultural analysis, not everyone is confident about the future of professional journalism. But according to TED speaker Paul Lewis, who shared two dramatic examples of citizen journalism at work at TEDxThessaloniki in 2011, the pros aren’t going anywhere. As he says this week in an interview with the TED Blog, “there are far more benefits from a collaborative approach working in an engaged way with citizens than there are disadvantages. So I think it’s actually quite a good new news story.”

As the head of multimedia special projects at The Guardian, 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.”

“More and more journalists are operating as anchors — working with a whole set of actors who are doing journalistic inquiry on their behalf.”

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.

Even in the case of Ian Tomlinson, says Lewis, he made sure to take witnesses back to the scene of the crime. Despite collecting photographic and video evidence from a variety of sources, he was always mindful of the reality that the human memory is fallible. With each additional piece of evidence, you get closer to what Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth.” There’s no single version of truth, says Lewis, but journalists retain a key role. “We’re not the arbiters of right and wrong and fact and fiction, in a total sense. But we can do our best to try to get a better idea of what happened.”