Over the past few weeks, news organizations have taken a careful look at how they are covering the horrifying testimony at the trial of Michael Rafferty, charged with the first-degree murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford. Most are trying to balance the need to bear witness to understand how such a thing happened to an innocent young girl with the need to be sensitive and to spare the public some of the most gruesome testimony. As journalists, we want to remember at all times that this is the story of a child who was tragically murdered and that her family is sitting through this trial in her honour.
I was out of the country at the time and it surprised me on my return that a debate was still going on about reporting using Twitter and whether to use it in such a sensitive trial. Twitter is just another tool for journalists, who are also able to use long-form narrative or short news stories in print, breaking news writing on a website, radio reports, video, television, Storify, etc.
The question is not whether we should use Twitter, but how to use Twitter and on what elements of a story. Journalists need to apply the same standards when tweeting from a trial that we would use in any other form of telling what is happening. It may be extreme short-form journalism, but it is journalism.
The argument that you can’t capture a complicated trial in 140 characters is, of course, true. But you can’t capture completely a complicated trial in a 250-word news story either. What you can do is write breaking news elements succinctly and sensitively in tweets.
There are several advantages to tweeting some details of a story. It allows you to alert the reader to an updated story directly or on a website through a short introduction and link. It allows greater immediacy to signal something is about to happen such as a key witness about to take the stand. It allows the writer to signal major turning points in a story such as when a witness changes her story. Taken as a whole, it is just as important when tweeting or live blogging as it is when writing a longer story to be selective about what you write and don’t write. Readers don’t need a long list through tweets of testimony. They need to understand the significance of what is happening in court and they need to be alerted to the longer pieces which can more fully explain the story.
The Globe and Mail had two reporters covering the initial stages of the trial. One was tweeting the testimony. Our digital editors then turned those tweets into story format for online, mobile and tablet. The other reporter helped with that process for digital but then wrote the longer wrap-up stories for the next-day’s newspaper. We are continuing our coverage of the trial this week with Timothy Appleby writing both for the newspaper and online. We are not tweeting the story this week, but we may return to having a second reporter there in the future.
Like all stories about a trial, comments are closed, but if you would like to discuss the issue of tweeting with me, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org