8 August 2011

Reporting the Tottenham riot - how Twitter won

In its reporting of the Tottenham riot, Twitter, at its best, was faster, more accurate and went places the traditional media didn't.

Tottenham riots reporting
The news reporting of the Tottenham and Wood Green disturbances (6/7 August 2011) shows how digital media can lap its more traditional rivals in its coverage of some fast-evolving news events.

The short pipeline of digital news channels is a key advantage, but the working practices of some digital journalists, as well as the sometimes over elaborate nature of news output in the old media, are also contributing to other contenders - non-news professionals on Twitter, YouTube, social networking sites and other new channels - sometimes winning the race to first deliver stories but also, occasionally, to be the only providers of front-line coverage.

Yet where traditional media is able to adapt to digital, it is likely to be able to use its greater resources to again assert dominance.

Police cars on fire

Reading mid-evening on the BBC News website that two police vehicles had been set on fire in Tottenham, I wanted to find out what was the latest news. But I didn't want to wait an indeterminate time for an update either on that site, or on the BBC or Sky rolling TV news channels. I knew that there was only one medium that would get me live (and recent) reporting, and from many different voices - Twitter. 

Facebook is too scattergun - whose updates would you follow? How many of those would be public? 

YouTube and trawling online for still photos would similarly be hard work and only lead to images and their captions. 

Messaging via BlackBerry etc, or even emails or texts would keep you updated, but usually only if you were in the loop in the first place. This method may be a primary tool of those organising but it appears not to be (yet) used much for reporting, although the ability of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) to apparently not reveal the sender of messages, as well as to transmit a message to many receivers, suggests a future as a reporting tool.

News website live feeds, such as 'live blogs', are useful but can be slow to start and whilst the best will report from lots of different sources, including from other news outlets and from independents, they do not have the variety of Twitter. And their editing process, whilst helpful in ensuring little poor content, also eliminates interesting voices and slows the news output process.
Choosing output 

Guessing correctly the best hashtag as #tottenham, I found a sea of posts but very few of these were attempting to report. Nearly all the Twitter feed was exclamations - from disgust to exultation and all points in-between. 

And a lot of these comments were based on a perception of what had happened, rather than what the commentator could be sure had occurred. But as the Independent Police Complaint Commission had said, regarding the death of Mark Duggan, that "We do not know the order the shots were fired. We understand the officer was shot first before the male was shot" this confusion was not surprising. 

So many tweets disagreed with the original protest that afternoon in Tottenham - ‘why complain about the shooting of someone who had fired at the police?’ But it now transpires that the bullet in the radio was fired not by Duggan, but by the police.

To make Twitter more useful to me in finding out about events, I needed to dispense with those simply forwarding (with varying degrees of honesty) what had already been reported by others. Also needing to be sifted out, as much as possible, were those fabricating ‘news’ (which could get rapidly retweeted; the frequency of which was often based on its creativity, rather than its credibility). 

Many hares were set running. Some claimed that they had heard that trouble had broken out in various combinations of Peckham, Brixton and Walthamstow and a few, falsely, claimed that they had witnessed this. Some of this fake ‘news’ attempted to gain acceptance though claiming an authoritative source. Some was rewritten, from a purloined original, but with a ‘first hand account’ angle grafted on top.

But Twitter consumes as well as conceives. There is no better rebuttal to a spurious ‘eye-witness’ tweet about disturbances somewhere, than, for a few minutes later, others on Twitter, at the same claimed location, to point out nothing is happening or even to post photos showing calm.

And another of the strengths of Twitter at rebuttal is its ability for its silence to give an opinion about what is being reported. So when the BBC broadcast an interview with somebody who said the night’s trouble had kicked off because a 16 year old girl was attacked by police at the end of the protest outside Tottenham police station, Twitter helped make me sceptical about whether there had been such an incident because I was struck by the absence of conformation of this incident online. There weren't any photos of this event (there were photos of most everything else) and no-one was claiming to be an eye-witness. 

There is a video on YouTube that claims to show this supposed incident but you can see little. It has a soundtrack of a woman protesting about an ongoing attack against a girl, but this was clearly taken after night had fallen, long after any event at the end of the protest would have happened.

My surmising from Twitter is that there probably was no such event, or, if it happened, few noticed and so it would not have been a spark. On the BBC, the 'incident' remained with the weight of an unchallenged eyewitness account.

When you dispense with what you see as tweet-chaff, the task is to identify who was worth following of those present in Tottenham. Often through having many followers, and also through many of their tweets being retweeted, those from the traditional media start with the advantage of being more noticeable on Twitter. But newer digital journalists can be prominent as well. 

And once I selected who was worth reading, I followed them until they left and then followed others, with these latter sources often obtained through having been linked to by the original journalists.

Nimble or hidebound

The older media I followed included Guardian reporter @PaulLewis; (“Just seen 20 people sprinting around #woodgreen with hands full of looted goods. Fights breaking out. Teen in stolen minicab.”); @ravisomaiya from the New York Times (NYT) (and whose live online coverage, via that newspaper’s home page, completely eclipsed the near absent online coverage on the BBC News website) and, for a while, @rickin_majithia from the BBC.

Amongst the newer media worth following were @jbardrosenberg (“Definitely further rioting in wood green - loads of shops smashed in and the wondscreen of the bus we were on #tottenham”), @counterfireorg (“Orange light is huge burning barricade to stop police advancing on protesters in #tottenham http://twitpic.com/623p6o”) and @aaronjohnpeters (“Interestingly what I saw wasn't gangs but affinity groups of 3-10 - primarily delineated along race - all with a shared purpose”). 
The 140 characters of a tweet can lead to pithy, fact based reporting; (@ravisomaiyaPolice charged through firewall with dogs. #tottenhamriot”), compared to that staple of rolling news coverage - repetitive, filler news. You don't repeat a tweet.

And whilst reading what those reporters had to say, I also listened to the BBC News and Sky News coverage. And I realised how little I would know if I had to rely on just the latter pair.

Both Sky and the BBC had cameras near police lines that needed to zoom, to the maximum of their capabilities, to only barely obtain pictures of running cops and flames several hundred metres away. But many of the reporters using Twitter appeared to be that several hundred metres up the road - at, or near, the front line.

So when Sky said, at a distance, that the trouble is damping down, the online journalists, a lot closer, were tweeting that it appeared to be kicking off again. 

And when Sky reported that a wall of flame was a building on fire, an independent journalist there tweeted that it was a burning barricade. 

This disparity in the news coverage only widened as the night went on. At some point, the BBC news crew was attacked by some youths when the fast moving frontline enveloped them whilst they filmed the nearby smashing of a police car. 

Many plaintive tweets went out rhetorically asking why the media were being attacked. But you can imagine why the rioters objected to being caught on camera. At about the same time, the Sky News camera was similarly put out of action.

So what did the BBC and Sky News do? They just withdrew. They spent the rest of the night simply repeating old footage and interviewing ‘experts’ who were always a very long way from the event. Even those not involved with filming, such as the BBC’s @rickin_majithia left - he tweeted that they had all been ordered ‘back to Base.’

The major media - both broadcast and print (with the exception of the Guardian and the NYT) did not attempt to put journalists on the ground like others were doing - not filming, not maybe even taking photos, but just watching and tweeting. 

So by 0230 several journalists on Twitter were reporting looting in Wood Green (2 km from Tottenham) but this was not being mentioned by either the BBC or Sky, in any of their news formats, when I went to bed at 0400.

And this lack of knowledge of what was occurring diminished the capacity of media, like Sky and the BBC, to report accurately. Earlier in the evening they were broadcasting the police saying that the situation was contained and they had no way of checking this. 

But the digital media knew better with the Guardian’s @PaulLewis tweeting then, “If police indeed are saying #tottenhamriot "contained", that is absolutely not true. It is mayhem.

Future news

Occasions like Tottenham and other mass participation and multi-site news events can not be reported just by an immobile broadcast crew. Journalists need to be moving and sometimes unobtrusive.

In some circumstances they may be able to take photos and video. But even when journalists are just tweeting, it is mistaken to think that the major media can still broadcast live, or later print, news that was contradicted online at the time without the major media becoming progressively less credible. 

And independent journalists can make an impact in these circumstances. The longer that older media doesn’t adapt, the bigger that impact could be.    

Clive Power

(photo - Nico Hogg www.flickr.com/people/nicohogg. Some rights reserved by Nico Hogg.)