The collective amount of knowledge shared through prevalent and current technologies has handed an unprecedented level of power to citizen journalists. A citizen journalist and a traditional journalist working together can lead to a positive effect on the news industry as the value of content pieced together may produce more accurate and relatable news stories. Citizen journalists at times hold geo-locational information relevant to the birthplace of a story which professional journalists may not be able to access to develop a fully rendered article suitable for public release.
Some journalists who hold themselves as the gatekeepers of information accept the idea to use the information provided to them by citizen journalists. This use by certain mainstream journalists also renders the gatekeeper quite vulnerable. For example, it will become a challenge for a news outlet to retain the trust of their audience if they were to release a false news story which could have been corrected had they utilised information from citizen journalists.
This was the case of Paul Lewis, a journalist who brought to light the truth of two heavily distorted news stories which both involved controversial deaths. Furthermore, both deaths embroiled professional bodies who had a duty of care to society. By trawling through eyewitnesses accounts on social media networks he was able to uncover the truth of what really took place. His actions also put the London Standard newspaper into question regarding the original article which they had published.
Having been dubious with the immediate release of an article by the London Standard regarding the death of their newsvendor, Ian Tomlinson, Mr Lewis enquired further into what could have caused him to fall over and die. Mr Lewis used Twitter to send out an online appeal to those who were at the G20 protests, stating that he was unsatisfied with the paper’s story of events. He was subsequently sent a video by a New York citizen who had attended the protest. The video showed clear footage of the attack upon Mr Tomlinson by Police Constable Simon Harwood who was part of the elite territorial support group.
This footage “formed the basis of an enquiry into police conduct” and the controversy lay with the newspaper who had released a misleading story following comments that were made by the Metropolitan Police that they were “impeded from resuscitating Mr Tomlinson because the protestors were throwing missiles believed to be bottles”. This is an indication of how news publishers such as the London Standard (the very same news agency which Mr Tomlinson worked for), could have easily verified the facts before releasing a fabricated story which only employed comments made by the Metropolitan Police force.
This story offered an insight into the pairing of two separate individuals who pooled their sources together in order to give Mr Tomlinson and his family the justice they deserved. It is also one example of how the knowledge shared from citizen journalists holds not only conglomerate-owned news industries to account, but also allows the public to reevaluate whether authoritative figures can be trusted.
The second story which Mr Lewis revisited was the death of Jimmy Mubenga, a political refugee from Angola who lived in London. The official version of events which were originally released detailed that Mr Mubenga was being deported back to Angola and he had fallen sick while on flight. The flight returned to Heathrow and he was then transferred to the hospital only to be pronounced dead. Through looking extensively into social media anecdotes, Mr Lewis questioned the official version of events. He was then contacted by a man from Angola who informed him that Mr Mubenga was held in a restraining position by three security guards, exclaiming that he could not breathe and that they were killing him. The position which security guards kept him in can lead to positional asphyxia, a form of suffocation.
Both of the above cases show that the sharing of information on social media platforms and carefully wording posts or tweets are useful tools in being able to pursue eyewitness accounts which otherwise would have been impossible. Primarily, it would have been difficult to verify a single eyewitness account from a man in Angola, Mr Lewis henceforth, after being contacted by other witnesses, was able to validate that the cause of Mr Mubenga’s death was due to suffocation, as all of the witness statements were consistent with one another.
Both of the above mentioned stories confirm that sharing factual information on social media platforms, and carefully wording one’s posts or tweets, are a useful tool in being able to pursue eyewitnesses which otherwise would have been impossible. Had it not been for the information provided from each citizen, Mr Lewis would not have been able to investigate further into the deaths of Mr Tomlinson and Mr Mubenga. But as “verification is absolutely essential”, this could also pose a question, how can one trust the source? A problem which traditional journalists encounter daily. A possible solution is to ensure that what “witnesses say are consistent with one another”, as there can be misinformation shared on social media.
Citizen journalism can also offer a new layer of accountability, which massively broadens the boundaries of what’s possible through raw information being picked up from regular citizens. Acting as free sources of political, economic and cultural analyses – such as the witnesses which Mr Lewis discovered – citizen journalists can prove to be very beneficial for the news industry should they choose to verify the information collected.
Citizen journalism has become an integral part of how Mr Lewis now works as a journalist, we are currently witnessing the necessary realignment of the relationship between broadcaster and the public. It is the reader becoming involved in telling the story as they never had before. Yet information feeding is only one way in which citizen journalism can be employed in an already complicated field.