MURDER TRIAL: Live tweeting adds new dimension to newspaper’s trial coverage (video)
The words “I just shot him, I shot him” suddenly flashed on the computer screen’s rolling storyline of a gang murder trial playing out in Ulster County Court.
The exclamation was a dramatic confession that Freeman reporter Patricia Doxsey probably would have, at one time, jotted on in rectangular notepad and kept for use hours later in the fashioning a newspaper story.
Nowadays, these courtroom observations — tiny details or headline-worthy facts — no longer linger in notebooks.
They are tweeted.
Beginning last week, Doxsey joined a growing number of journalists who are hunched over iPads or other devices and, minute after minute, tweet the pulsating stuff of courtroom drama to readers via the social media service Twitter on the Web.
“They have become the daily tools of the press corps,” said David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration. “They have, by in large, replaced the notepad.”
And tweeting has changed the way reporters, like Doxsey, cover courtroom saga.
Tony Adamis, the Freeman’s manager editor, said the newspaper spotted a chance to give its Web readers more than the traditional news story on a different platform. Continued...
“We saw this relatively new technology as an opportunity to augment — not replace — our customary, text-based trial coverage,” Adamis said. “And we haven’t been disappointed.”
Adamis said Doxsey’s live tweeting has added another layer to courtroom reporting by delivering detail not easily fitting the traditional print medium.
“The live tweeting Patricia has done has provided both a sense of immediacy and a level of detail that simply isn’t practical within the confines of the traditional 700- to 900-word story,” Adamis added.
Adamis said Doxsey has used Twitter to report on “the ebb and flow of testimony, as well as the very feel of the courtroom, and succeeded to an extent that has surprised me.”
Still, there are those who think tweeting does not belong in the courtroom.
Norm Pattis, a civil rights attorney in Bethany, Conn., said the reporting of such minutiae is nearly meaningless. In the Connecticut Law Tribune, he wrote about tweeting in connection with the sensational case involving multiple-murder suspect Stephen Hayes.
“Reporting isolated facts has little value,” Pattis wrote. “Indeed, the practice carries the danger of distraction.”
In Connecticut, like New York, visual and audio equipment are banned from courtrooms. Use of those media would provide the public with a much more unvarnished look than tweeting reporters do, Pattis argues.
“Tweeting during trial is a dumb idea,” Pattis said. “If we’re going to provide contemporaneous information, then permit an unobtrusive radio microphone to broadcast the sounds.”
“Television cameras, twitting groupies and clacking keyboards are as offensive as a sandwich board in the courtroom,” the lawyer said. “Let the media hawk its product by something other than 140-word snippet cranked out at breakneck speed while trial is in session.” Continued...
But Doxsey — who is covering the gang murder trial of Trevor “Little T” Mattis and Gary “G-Money” Griffin — says she is tweeting with a journalist’s eye for the complex or quirky.
“One of the defendants stared down a witness as she walked into the courtroom,” Doxsey said was one of her tweets. “I think that’s relevant. ... I tweet what I think is relevant.”
During the first day of the trial, Doxsey was told by a court officer after several hours of tweeting that she could no longer use the iPad. She stopped, but she was given permission to resume the following day by Ulster County Judge Donald A. Williams Jr., who is presiding over the trial.
Doxsey said she simply had to promise not to use the machine to take photographs or record audio.
Ivan Lajara, the Freeman’s Life editor and digital expert, said the newspaper’s foray into courtroom tweeting has paid off.
At the conclusion of Wednesday’s proceedings, there had been more than 30,000 hits on Doxsey’s trial stories and live tweets, Lajara said. He also said readers had posted more than 740 comments amid Doxsey’s more than 700 tweets.
Lajara said the average follower of Doxsey’s tweets was logged on for 54 minutes and that, taken cumulatively, the tweet viewership totaled 44 days, 19 hours and 26 minutes.
“The tweets from Patti allow citizens to get a sense, in real time, of what’s going on in the courtroom without being physically there,” Lajara said. “You could say that Patti’s tweets are adding more seats to the courtroom.”
Online comments by readers to the stream of tweets have been growing, including contributions from the Bronx, where Griffin is from, and from relatives of the shooting victim, Charles King Jr.
The comments are “sometimes people just expressing their opinions, sometimes responding to other people’s comments,” Lajara said. “And sometimes they want to know more details about what’s happening, which illustrates people’s interest in the case.” Continued...
Lajara has been monitoring the comments that are streamed onto the Freeman’s website, www.dailyfreeman.com, and blocks ones that contain vulgarities or potentially libelous elements.
Some followers of Doxsey’s tweets say they are glued to the coverage.
Diana Spada, who works at a Kingston insurance agency, said her Twitter feed runs all day long.
“You are watching it unfold,” Spada said.
But she said the comments sometimes get out of hand.
“You can see some people are trying to make out issues that aren’t really there,” she said.
Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach tweeted his opinion: “It certainly is riveting in a 140 character sort of way and no commercials!”
EXPERTS in media-related legal issues and open government say courtroom tweeting is likely to blossom.
Michael Grygiel, chairman of the New York State Bar Association’s Media Law Committee, said allowing tweeting devices in courtrooms is an evolving matter.
“The position of the media is that they should be allowed to use these devices to engage in conventional news-gathering activities that are otherwise permitted to the print media,” Grygiel said.
New York is among only a handful of states that ban cameras or video recorders from courtrooms. But while newer devices, such as the iPad 2, can be used to take photographs, they also can be used as notebooks or Twitter vehicles.
“If the reporter is not making audio recordings or transmitting visual signals of what is taking place, but is simply recording and transcribing their observations, that would not be prohibited by the statute,” Grygiel said.
Bookstaver, the spokesman for the state’s Office of Court Administration, said it is left to the discretion of judges to allow or ban devices such as iPads. For the most part, Bookstaver said, judges have been accommodating.
Often, he said, judges are more distracted by reporters “coming and going” out of courtrooms to make telephone calls. He said the newfangled devices keep them in their seats.
Bookstaver said, however, that if a reporter used a device to take photographs or to livestream audio or video images of court proceedings, there would be consequences.
But Robert Freeman, executive director of state Committee on Open Government, said the rules should change, particular given changes in technology.
Freeman said the state’s ban on cameras in courtrooms “is terribly out of date, and the changes that you are seeing proves that to be so.”
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