Tech on trial

As one of the decade’s most horrifying stories unfolded in a Belleville
courtroom, newsrooms experimented with new ways of reporting,
Rob Washburn writes. Here’s how journalists tackled the story, in real time.

Using social media in journalism is like watching lightning. It can be explained as a physical phenomenon using the laws of physics. Scientists study it and forecast when it will happen. But nobody can predict where it will hit. Nobody can predict the results. More than anything else, nobody can make it hit the same spot twice.

Social media played a significant role during the Williams hearing as it became a news ticker from inside the courtroom, sharing vivid details of the crimes of Russell Williams, a former colonel in the Canadian military, who was found guilty of two murders of young women and 86 other counts of break and enter, sexual assault and other crimes.

More and more, newsrooms are recognizing the importance of the use of social media like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and so forth. The American Journalism Review in March reported the influx of social media editors working with citizen journalists, engaging audiences. The and experienced a 300 per cent increase in unique visitors via these media.

Yet, social media continues to confound those who want to see reproducible results. Social media is viral and uncontrolled, where messages get reworked, reshaped and retweeted, as Toronto Star media columnist Antonia Zerbisias pointed out in her post-G20 analysis of the use of Twitter during the protests in Toronto in June.

Rich Gordon, of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, said it best in a recent article in Neiman Reports:

“So this may not be the ideal time to suggest that the social media landscape is continuing to be transformed in ways that journalists and news organizations will find confounding.”

Already the analysis is underway to examine the ethical dimensions of the use of Twitter during the Williams hearings. It will be up to the media ethicists and other scholars to dissect the content and provide analysis. This article is meant to be an early examination of the role of social media technology and the lessons learned for future applications in journalism.

Immediately, it is important to understand the unique context of the Williams hearing. First, a judge lifted a BlackBerry ban and allowed reporters to bring laptop computers and smart phones into the courtroom. This is not always the case and is determined by each judge for each case. Hence, this was unusual.

These tools allowed communication back to the newsroom via email and other software. It also gave reporters the ability to instantly publish what was going on. Twitter was a popular tool, as some organizations allowed reporters to post to individual accounts or to use aggregator technology like CoverItLive, where a number of reporters, commentators and editors were presenting a stream of information via text and images.

The content was very raw in some instances, as reporters became stenographers, passing along details with little — if any — context or forethought. Twitter technology constrains journalists in this manner, according to Mark Walker, business team leader at Toronto-based content management system Scribblelive. For one thing, messages are constrained to 140 characters. It’s a “push technology” where the audience subscribes and then automatically receives information, not knowing what may be coming down the pipe, he said, and there is no filter at either end of the conduit. It is unedited, unauthenticated and unverified, he added, breaking three of the major protocols of good journalism.

Sure, the contents of the hearing were compelling. Certainly, there were members of the audience and journalists who found the content repulsive. Still, the way Crown Attorney Lee Burgess walked the judge through the evidence, building layer upon layer of detailed evidence, made a word-for-word report pretty enticing. This, in turn, became more shocking as it unfolded. It was a challenge for journalists to stop and use news judgment due to the momentum created by this legal strategy. The evidence was presented in such a way as to create a very dramatic narrative as the nature of the crimes and violence escalated. While the technology made it easy to publish, the content smoothed the process as well. Neither the technology nor the news media needed to add anything to make this case sensational. It was inherently sensational.

The high news value of the Williams hearing meant additional resources were given to the coverage. And the technology went beyond social media. While some reporters were alone in the courtroom, platforms like CoverItLive allowed editors and other journalists to contribute to the information stream. Reporters back in the newsroom included contextual background, uploaded photo galleries and provided filler when the streams were slow. In the courtroom, illustrators uploaded their drawings directly to the newsroom’s live feeds: snapshots where cameras aren’t allowed. CoverItLive also employs live chat software that can publish what readers and other Twitter and social media users are saying.

In other cases, the software was used to hold live, interactive chats with audiences to discuss aspects of the trial, as in the case of the CBC who had trauma specialists and psychotherapists discussing the impact of the trial.

Another factor was the high public interest in the case. The coverage of the murders, the investigation, the arrest and the pre-hearing stories laid the foundation for a large audience seeking more information. Social media was a good channel for audiences because it allowed them to follow details instantly and from anywhere. Unlike television or radio, social media is delivered to computer desktops and mobile platforms making it convenient to receive a constant stream of information. People could be anywhere doing anything and receive the news from the courtroom.

The synchronicity of these factors comes together to create a perfect storm. There are many journalists who use social media as part of their regular coverage and come nowhere near the experience the issues raised at the Williams hearing. So, it is useful to identify this as a rare example, not a norm. It’s also important to note that these factors may never occur again. Or maybe they will. Who knows. Any analysis is limited by the extreme nature of Williams’ story, and may not be reproducible.

Twitter is useful to journalists as a form of news ticker, a steady stream of information for audiences. It is good at letting people know up to the minute what is going on in the format of short snippets. It makes newsrooms equally competitive; whereas traditionally television and radio were able to provide breaking news in a more timely fashion compared to newspapers. Twitter is raw information vetted only by the individual reporter. CoverItLive technology has a moderation tool, so an editor can read the posts prior to being made live. But it also can be configured to post automatically. This is where many critics take issue. It is the automated features of social media through instant publishing or aggregation of source materials that put the news in front of readers  without editing or verification. The Gordon Lightfoot and Pat Burns stories are two classic examples.

The use of CoverItLive by the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and CBC (and Scribblelive by the National Post), among others, mitigated some of the issues raised by using Twitter alone. In these cases several techniques were used. For example the blending of several Twitter feeds provided varied points of view. In other cases, Twitter messages were combined with other journalists and experts outside the courtroom and in the newsroom, who were able to provide context, images and other information. This added context in some cases and other perspectives, as well. It also made for a single delivery platform for audiences, giving them one channel to receive a wide range of information. The moderator feature of CoverItLive can also be used to edit and vet posts.

The hearing also reminds journalist about reportage, i.e. bearing of witness to events and conveying those directly to an audience. This unfiltered form, which simply records history as it happens, it not used very much in modern journalism. Yet it can capture the innate qualities of a particular event, like the reports from the bombing of Britain by Edward R. Murrow. Journalists often rework materials to create their stories and make them into workable pieces that audiences will want to consume. The social media tools are good platforms for reportage because there is no chance for filtering and journalist can easily communicate their experiences directly.

Toronto Star reporter Joanna Smith provides insight into writing 140 characters. While many critics complain about the short messages sent out via Twitter, Smith reminds journalists about the craft of the business.

Quoted in the Sunday Toronto Star (Murder she wrote: In 140 characters or less. Sunday Oct. 24, 2010) Smith talks about the power of the form.

“The immediacy of Twitter has a power that both news consumers and journalists are still getting used to harnessing,” says Smith, who tweeted from the Haiti earthquake aftermath. “I think of my tweets from Haiti and how crafting a single 140-character tweet that worked as a complete narrative had a power that gave me chills, sometimes, in a way that the same amount of text in a newspaper story would not. I think many of my followers felt the same way about it. I think the same dynamics are at play here, but the content is so graphic that almost any tweet can blow someone away. We have to respect that, and work hard to check and balance ourselves accordingly.”

There are many aspects to the puzzle presented by social media’s role in journalism. It would be valuable to study how the original information went viral, following it as it was reworked and re-messaged throughout social networks. Beyond Twitter, it would be interesting to look at other social media platforms like YouTube and blogs to see how these responded and reacted. Were news organizations successful in weaving together their social media and traditional coverage into an overarching narrative?

Is Twitter a useful tool for journalists? No doubt. And, should journalists continue to use social media? Of course. But, as Picard rightly said, we must expect to be confounded. What is most important is journalists should be free to experiment with these new technologies. The Williams hearing was an important crucible to test the use of social media in news coverage. Lessons will be learned. Lots of debate will take place. Eventually, journalists will develop a greater understanding of both the technology, its capabilities and capacity as a tool. We are in a period where innovation can happen spontaneously. New standards are yet to be formed. Journalists must remain open to the possibilities. Still, it should never be viewed as predictable or controllable. Like lightening, journalists will need to understand it, but also stand back and watch