Investigative reporting. The phrase conjures up images of undercover agents, sensitive information in brown paper envelopes, shadowy men sporting trench coats and fedoras…
But Paul Lewis, The Guardian’s Special Projects Editor, has produced investigative stories of national importance, not by preserving secrecy, but by opening up his reporting process. In 2009 he used social networks and crowd sourcing to locate a video of British newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson being attacked from behind by police – footage that was crucial in contradicting the official police account of Tomlinson’s death. Later, Lewis again used social media to investigate the death of refugee Jimmy Mubenga, and produced evidence that Mubenga had died after being restrained by three security guards in his seat as he was being deported from Britain to Angola (See this excellent TED lecture for his description of events). The quality of his journalism led to him winning the Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism in 2009, being named Reporter of the Year at the British Press Awards in 2010, and being shortlisted for this year’s Orwell Prize.
During last summer’s riots in Britain, Lewis used Twitter to support his on-the-ground reporting, and became the second-most influential Tweeter after @riotcleanup. How did he do it? Lewis says that it didn’t necessarily have much to do with a huge, pre-existing personal network. Although he now has over 47,000 followers, he recalls that he went into the riots with about 10,000. But, in his words, when people turned to social networks for instant news, “what made journalists like me and others useful during the riots was firstly, we were there on the ground, and secondly that we were trusted”. The combination of editorial experience and reliability with instantaneous reporting made Lewis’s Twitter coverage of the riots what it was.
Of course, Twitter comes with its own hazards. “Is it possible to properly verify snippets of information that come to you from strangers in 140 characters? Absolutely not”, says Lewis, “And that’s not what we do.” But he explains that Twitter proved invaluable in directing his coverage of the unrest. “I might say ‘where do I go in Hackney? Or Camden? Or Birmingham? Or Gloucester?’ and I would get about 20 or 30 replies, of which 75% were in agreement,” he explained, “now that doesn’t mean that I’m going to publish that there were riots in that particular street where everybody tells me to go, but it can inform my reporting in the sense that it can direct me to that street and that’s where I see the riots.”
Lewis emphasises that Twitter is just “the gateway for the contact”. But often the path it opens up can be incredibly revealing. This was true for the Tomlinson and Mubenga stories, and Lewis says that it’s proving to be the case for a new project that he’s working on, in partnership with Rob Evans, about the use of undercover police officers. He acknowledges that this “might be the type of journalism that you would think is the least amenable or appropriate for open news strategies because you’re dealing with highly secretive information and sources who, on all sides, are speaking to you strictly off the record.” At first he was even doubtful himself about whether the project would work. But now, says Lewis, thanks to opening up the investigation to the public, “we have had a number of really quite useful breakthroughs… What we found on this occasion, and on a few others, is that actually by being open, you ultimately find out more.”
In the case of the riots reporting, this commitment to openness was taken to whole new levels. In collaboration with the London School of Economics, and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, Lewis worked with the LSE's Tim Newburn to lead a team that selected and trained 30 researchers to travel around Britain and interview rioters. The project, named Reading the Riots, lasted about four months, and the resulting 270 interviews were analysed by journalists and academics to form the basis of reports, videos, infographics and question and answer sessions with members of the project team. The initiative also worked with the University of Manchester, which analysed a database of over 2.5 million tweets about the riots, and the results were used, among other things, to create a compelling series of interactive graphics. The investigations produced a wealth of information contradicting official pronouncements about the causes of the violence, including the assumption that it had been driven by gangs. After the results were released and analysed in different ways, the project took the conclusions back to the communities that produced them and hosted what Lewis called “town hall debates,” so that individuals affected by the unrest could have a chance to have their say in public.
Is this really journalism? Or is it crossing over into sociological research and community development? In Lewis’s view these areas aren’t always particularly distinct. “I think that actually journalism’s quite a flexible term,” he says. “The idea of hosting a series of conversations with people who have been affected by the riots isn’t something that probably a newspaper would consider is part of its remit,” he continues, “but that doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t do it.” The project fits neatly with the Guardian’s Open Journalism initiative, which encourages readers to contribute, comment on and help shape content. Simply put, this kind of collaboration helps drive forward issues by widening the conversation. And in Lewis’s experience, this tends to benefit journalism. “I think actually there are very few realms of reporting that don’t lend themselves to being much more open in the way that we produce and then subsequently report the news,” he says.
Next step, fedoras for everyone.
Paul Lewis will be speaking at this year's International Newsroom Summit in Hamburg, May 10-11.