Trial By Twitter: Real-time Court Coverage

Reprinted from Justice 2.0, a blog about social media in the courts
By K. Daniel Glover

Helen Ubinas was a lone voice tweeting in a media wilderness in January 2010. The Harford Courant columnist was the only journalist reporting in real time via Twitter during jury selection of a high-profile murder trial — an experiment she began by happenstance when the reactions of potential jurors intrigued her.

“Mostly I thought I was ‘talking’ to myself, just jotting down impressions of the young woman who broke down crying when she saw Hayes, the high-stakes lawyering taking place, etc.,” Ubinas said in an email interview. “But suddenly people started to follow me — and they began sending messages. I realized quickly that people were very interested in the case, in the judicial system. They wanted every single detail.”

By the time the jury found Steven Hayes guilty of killing three people in Cheshire, Conn., Ubinas was one of a half-dozen reporters covering the case live in news blurbs and sound bites of 140 characters or less. Their work amassed such a following that Hayes’ defense team blamed Twitter for creating a “circus atmosphere,” and the second defendant in the murder case, Joshua Komisarjevsky, later tried to keep tweeters out of the courtroom.

The reporter’s notebook online
The Cheshire murder trials highlight the increasing significance of Twitter both as a news tool in general and as a great gadget for covering trials in particular. Journalists can report dramatic testimony, legal maneuverings and more as soon as they happen, and they can do it in more detail than traditional media allow.

High-profile trials such as the Cheshire case and the federal corruption trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill., attract the most attention. But some local court reporters have made Twitter part of their daily routines.

The value of live-tweeting trials quickly becomes apparent to journalists who try it. They hear from crime-news junkies, lawyers involved in trials and especially family members of crime victims. “Family members who could not be in court thanked me for making it possible for them to ‘be there,'” Ubinas said of both the Hayes trial and another one she tweeted more recently.
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