Tweeting a trial

Kate DubinskiCall me morbid, but I thought the Bandidos trial would be perfect to tweet, writes London Free Press reporter Kate Dubinski. It had drama, a compelling cast of characters, plenty of visual evidence and a judge who allowed Internet use. Here’s how it worked.

We fell into Twitter somewhat accidentally in the newsroom.

The Bandidos trial was going to be a big one for The London Free Press – we’d extensively covered the crime when it first happened: eight dead bikers from Toronto found on a rural road near London, six men charged with eight counts of first-degree murder. None of us was likely to see a trial of this calibre again anytime soon and it turned out we got to be groundbreaking in the live-tweeting arena as well.

When I first signed up for Twitter, about a month before the Bandidos trial started, I was riveted by the Winnipeg Free Press’s in-courtroom tweeting of the trial of Vince Weiguang Li, the accused in the case of the Greyhound bus beheading, complete with graphic testimony. Call me morbid, but I thought the Bandidos trial would be just as perfect to tweet. It had a compelling cast of characters, a judge who was willing to let media use the Internet in one of the courtrooms, plenty of visual evidence and all kinds of drama built right in – the biker lifestyle is a big draw.  

Our regular court reporter, Jane Sims, would cover the trial from the main, high-security courtroom. Members of the media had already asked and been approved to use electronics in the overflow courtroom – this room wasn’t quite as secure, and the proceedings were available on two television screens: one pictured the jury and witness box, the second the six accused bikers and the lawyers. A third screen was hooked up to computers the lawyers, judge, accused and jury saw – it projected evidence such as photos and videos.

The only time journalists weren’t allowed to tweet from the overflow courtroom itself was during the testimony of M.H., the Crown witness who is in the witness protection program – electronics weren’t allowed at all during his testimony. During his week on the stand, I’d listen to the evidence, then run out of the courtroom with my BlackBerry to type a tweet. It was exhausting and the coverage wasn’t as in-depth as it could have been.

At first, I tweeted the opening arguments on my BlackBerry. The tiny keyboard made for lots of typos and mistakes, though, so the newsroom invested in a Rogers Rocket Stick and I used a laptop for the rest of the trial. As the trial progressed, more and more people started following the trial, and more and more followers started interacting with me (and John Miner, another Free Press reporter, who tweeted in my absence.) Sims also tweeted sometimes, but she was usually in the main courtroom, writing the daily stories.

Twitterers responded to the tweets, especially those that put them right into the courtroom. I couldn’t tweet actual pictures of evidence, but I could get people as close as possible. If the Crown was talking about a particular calibre of gun, for example, I’d Google the gun, find an image and tweet a link to it. Being limited to 140 characters, tweeting links was often a good way to let people know what was going on in the courtroom (we also used this tool to direct people to the Free Press‘s website, where we had related videos and picture galleries (some of it evidence released throughout the trial) that would show followers things we just couldn’t do in the print product.   

Eventually, I started corresponding with bikers from New Zealand, British Columbia, Australia and Texas (where a lot of the evidence was set – the Bandidos North American headquarters). A lot of the followers knew the accused and the dead, and others were just curious observers.

Sims has since done interviews with some of the bikers mentioned during the trial but who haven’t been arrested. It was really interesting to be speaking to guys who knew the ins and outs of the organization that was being exposed on the stand.

The biggest problem we encountered was consistency. I went from a couple dozen followers at the beginning of the trial to more than 1,000 by the end (not sure how many of these were following the day-to-day of the trial, of course).

Sometimes, I just couldn’t be in court. I had other assignments or I had days off. It was a lot for the Free Press newsroom to lose two reporters from the daily rotation. If the editors and reporters decided we wouldn’t tweet a certain part of the trial, eventually the followers would get very angry that we wouldn’t be there.

I felt bad that we couldn’t always be there to cover it. Telling them to “go follow John for the day” didn’t really work and, in retrospect, next time we’d create a trial-dedicated Twitter account, even though the personal aspect of interacting with a reporter with a name would be lost.

Having one reporter covering a trial and another sending the tweets is essential, though. I thought of myself as the play-by-play announcer and Sims as the analyst after the game. Thinking of how to write something in 140 characters – quickly, coherently and engagingly – is enough of a challenge without having to analyze the overall picture for the next day’s paper, too.

At first I took notes, then typed them into the BlackBerry. But as I got a feeling for what 140 characters looked like, what words I could cut out and what I could abbreviate, I just typed the tweets directly into Twitter (I used TweetDeck on the laptop).

Eventually, I knew what would make a good tweet – a lot of information, written succinctly.

Followers would often ask for personal tweets – about what the accused were wearing, their facial expressions, etc. I couldn’t really see their faces, so I got Sims to fill me in on breaks and would tweet the info then.

Having someone tweet an entire trial is certainly an investment – you lose a body that is producing for the web, but not for the next day’s paper. It’s a challenge to the traditional way of thinking about reporting court cases.

In my view, the potential for Twitter is huge: we were first in getting out the verdicts, for example, which were then typed up for our site by people back in the newsroom. It offers a way to get people into the courtroom (or city council chambers) in a way that you can’t do with print or television. We interacted with people we never would have tracked down if it hadn’t been for tweeting the trial, and we interviewed them for more in-depth stories after the court case.

A final note: Twitter and social media are supposed to erase the need for journalists like me. Anyone from London could have come into the courtroom and tweeted their hearts out. Not a soul did. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes knowledge of the law (knowing not to tweet developments that occur when the jury isn’t there, for example).

In my opinion, it’s another way that journalists and media outlets can differentiate themselves from the pack.  

Kate Dubinski is a reporter and occasional columnist at The London Free Press.