Paul Lewis on the riots: 'No substitute for paid journalists'

The Guardian’s special projects editor Paul Lewis believes last month’s riots proved that citizen reporters are no substitute for paid journalists.

Lewis spent four nights on the streets during the period of unrest, starting off in north London before moving on to Birmingham and Gloucester – picking up 35,000 Twitter followers in the process.

The social networking site faced criticism at the time over allegations that it helped fuel the disorder, a claim countered by Lewis.

‘I thought the opposite was also true,’he said. ‘Twitter showed an innate capacity for self-regulation, with users actively disproving rumours and quelling speculation.”

Writing exclusively for the September edition of Press Gazette, Lewis claimed that ultimately it was the ‘reporters closest to the rioting who proved most useful”.

‘Some people argued the digital era would see paid journalists replaced by an army of citizen reporters,’he said.

‘The riots proved otherwise: people might consume news differently, but they still want it told straight, and by reporters on the ground.”

While the England riots were by no means the first major news event to be reported via Twitter, Lewis claimed that it became the ‘principal source for news’when police were over-run and TV crews attacked.

‘Newspaper reporters were at an advantage because we did not have to carry cameras or walk around in groups,’he said.

‘Wearing jeans and hoodies, it was easier for [Guardian colleague Mustafa Khalili] and I to linger as people smashed their way into shops or burned cars.

‘When police arrived, we joined them as they ran away. There were only a handful of times when it was safe to identify ourselves as journalists and ask for quotes.

‘With so many journalists attacked, we were constantly aware of the risk of being identified.

‘On occasions, looters became suspicious, quizzing us about where we were from. Once, when taking a photo, we were asked – only half-jokingly – if we were ‘Feds’.”

Lewis’s prolific use of Twitter led to a surreal encounter with a youth at the scene of one disturbance, when a teenager at the scene of a stabbing in Ponders End looked at him and said: ‘Bruv, you the man from Twitter?”

‘He was one of many locals turning to journalists on Twitter for reliable news,’said Lewis.

The 35,000 new followers he picked up during the riots were ‘not just interested in passively observing Twitter updates”.

‘They wanted to be part of a conversation and, at times, even collaborate in the news-gathering process,’Lewis added.

‘Like editors, they asked questions, gave feedback and corrected errors. Throughout the night Twitter followers provided us with postcodes for burning buildings and alerted us to new outbreaks of disorder.

‘There were repeated offers of shelter, cups of tea, mobile phone recharging points and even transport.’

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