The spread of the riots was covered well enough by mainstream media for some people to use it to find out where disorder was taking place so they could join in
Social media's role in fuelling the riots was the focus of government and press attention in the aftermath of the August riots ? but the Reading the Riots research suggests the dramatic imagery beamed around the country through mainstream media may have played just as significant a role.
More than 100 of the project's 270 interviewees referred to hearing about the riots through TV news ? more than those who heard about it through Twitter, texts, Facebook or BlackBerry Messenger.
A 22-year-old recently returned from Afghanistan described seeing images of a burning police station on the television with the mother of one of his friends.
"It looked like we was at war again or something, do you know what I mean, it was that bad, and I said: 'What's this?'. She said: 'It's the youth rebellion' or something, and I thought: 'Well, why ain't I in that?'"
He said the scenes portrayed in the footage showed an unusual sense of unity, which tempted him to get involved.
"It just made me realise how it was: we was all together, like, do you know what I mean? These are lads that, if they seen each other out, they'd stab each other ... without a second thought, like. It happens all the time.
"If they come to town and they see each other, one or the other will normally leave, and they were just there together, not together, walking past each other just happy with what was going on."
Some rioters also said the high impact of the TV coverage tempted them to get involved with the unrest.
"The telly's kinda dumb," said a 16-year-old involved in looting in Clapham Junction. "All them media people, to say: 'Rah, there's a riot in Clapham Junction.' That's basically advertising: 'Young people go to Clapham Junction and do what you're doing.' And to say that there was no police there for about three or four hours ? once again, advertising to them the riot. Rah, yeah, there's no police here, let's go and have some fun."
TV channels, particularly rolling news, often reused dramatic footage for several hours during the disturbances, as stations struggled to send camera crews to the latest sites of unrest. Camera crews also had difficulty filming after coming under attacks from rioters; a BBC camera van was attacked in Salford.
The spread of the riots was conveyed well enough by the mainstream media, however, for some rioters to use it to find out where the disorder was taking place so they could join in.
A 25-year-old from south London, for example, used his car stereo rather than social media to track disturbances. "You didn't need to have Facebook or a BB [BlackBerry]," he said. "You could just listen to the radio, to the news, to whatever station's talking about what was happening in whatever areas that it was happening today, and you would be able to know where you can go to find where to riot; it was simple as that."
Rioters outside London, where the use of BlackBerry Messenger to spread information on riot locations was less common, said the TV news had encouraged then to get involved in trouble and fuelled the spread of the riots. "They had maps on the news showing where it had spread to," said a 22-year-old who clashed with police in Birmingham. "I think they had it red round where it was going off bad and I think Birmingham, London, I think Manchester, certain parts of Manchester sort of thing that was really bad, and I was like, 'Birmingham?' and I went straight on the train, like."
For others, however, TV's habit of reusing footage from hours before led to trouble, as one rioter tempted by footage of streets empty of police recalls: "It's only I see on the news, and I thought: 'Boy, it's an opportunity that I can't miss,'" said a 32-year-old. "Like, so I went out there, basically, with the intention of going out to try and steal stuff, only because I thought the police weren't doing nothing about it. If I'd have known that that was gonna happen to me, I wouldn't have done it."
The man was arrested, and is currently serving a two-year sentence for commercial burglary.