A grisly murder trial, in 140-character bits

A grisly murder trial, in 140-character bits

A grisly murder trial, in 140-character bits

Rachel Guerra of WTNH-TV (left) and Luther Turmelle of The New Haven Register, who covered the Petit family killings trial by Twitter, in New Haven, Connecticut. With no cameras allowed for the trial, reporters tapped out instant electronic updates as readers followed every word through online instant posts. NYT

It was one of the most expectantly intense moments of the three-week trial of one of two defendants in the case. Every seat in the courtroom was taken.

No television cameras were there to record the scene, but people around the state and beyond in offices and family rooms still followed every word. The medium? Twitter. Half a dozen reporters for mainstream Connecticut newspapers and television stations clicked out reports of up to 140 characters on iPads, smartphones and laptops.

Tweet: The oozing blood from the doctor’s wounds after he was beaten by the intruders.
Tweet: His escape.
Tweet: His memories of his family.

Haiku journalism, one of the courtroom Twitter users called it. Still, followers learned everything, if succinctly, including the most gruesome details, as well as who was napping in the second row and the schedule for breaks. “It made you feel like you were there,” said Lawrence E Soda, a supermarket accountant, who said he kept Twitter reports of the trial rolling on his computer at the market in New Canaan.
One such message: “Did he ever hear defendants’ names before July 2007. No. Direct examination over. Lunch!”

Some news organisations have live blogged from news events for years, posting quick reports, updates and commentary. Court reporters in Knoxville, Tennessee, Wichita, Kansas, and elsewhere have pioneered Twitter trial reporting over the last few years. But after more than a decade of talk about the convergence of old and new media, it seemed to reach a new and furious level in Connecticut during the Cheshire murder trial, reporters and news executives say.

It was a perfect mix of intense local interest and a portable medium that can go where television cameras cannot. There is no doubt it is changing trial reporting and, perhaps, trials themselves by drawing people to courtroom events as they happen and pushing out unvarnished information at the speed of light.

The exact Twitter audience for the trial is difficult to measure: the journalists using the system had several thousand followers among them, but the dispatches could be forwarded and seen on some news organisations’ web sites and, during the verdict, on television.

The first phase of the case ended with the capital murder conviction of Steven J Hayes last week. The second phase, over whether he is to be sentenced to death, begins on Monday.

The Twitter reporters will be back. “It has given us an insight into a new way to reach our readers,” said Andrew Julien, a senior editor at “The Hartford Courant”, which has a columnist, Helen Ubiñas, reporting by Twitter as @NotesFromHeL all day every day from the trial, while another reporter, Alaine Griffin, feeds the newspaper and its web site while using Twitter only occasionally as @alainegriffin.

“Serious tension in here right now,” NotesFromHeL wrote as extra marshals appeared in the courtroom minutes before the verdict on October 5.

During the verdict, Fox Connecticut televised the Twitter messages of its reporters live, showing a screen where they were projected.

“Silence,” one of the Fox reporters, George Colli — @GeorgeColli — said on Twitter from the courtroom after the first guilty verdict.

The New Haven Register, @nhrlive, has taken to running the continuous Twitter feed from one of its two reporters in the courtroom above its article on its web site, helping push monthly views to 3.5 million in September from 3 million. He said readers came to expect something new from the trial at least every 15 minutes.

Ever since the extreme coverage of the O J Simpson case on television in 1995, some judges have been cautious about cameras in court. But that has done nothing to blunt public thirst for details in sensational trials, said Eric P Robinson, deputy director of the Reynolds National Centre for Courts and Media at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Robinson, who has studied court rules for digital media, said that as established news organisations expand into social media, what has happened in the Cheshire trial “is inevitable for a high-profile case” anywhere in the country where court rules permit it.
Courts nationally are sharply split on whether to allow cellphones and other electronic devices, and judges are watching as the Cheshire trial and others experiment with liberal digital access. Around the country, some judges have banned the use of Twitter as prohibited “broadcasting” that could get information to jurors and witnesses they are not supposed to have.

When the Cheshire trial began in State Superior Court here on September 13, Judge Jon C Blue said electronic devices would be permitted for text transmissions unless the live-from-the-courtroom coverage became disruptive. Only once, he told reporters that a juror had complained about an unnamed lady in red whose computer clicking drowned out the testimony.

But the Twitter messaging has continued, causing little notable disruption and varying widely in content.

Laurie Perez, a television reporter at Fox Connecticut — @LauriePerez — described investigators’ explicit testimony on Twitter. “Petit’s body was badly damaged.” A photograph of the burned bed of Michaela Petit, 11 years old, one of the murdered children, included “purple satin bedding and stuffed animals.”
“This is brutal, just brutal,” @LauriePerez wrote.

Often noiselessly, reporters have tapped out updates on every conceivable aspect of the trial, including Judge Blue’s haircut, rumours about Hayes’s health and just about everything else.

Rachel Guerra, an assignment editor for WTNH television news, @rachelguerra, sent Twitter messages from the trial full time while another reporter covered the daily stories from the trial for the on-the-air programs. She said in an interview that the unlimited capacity of the Internet meant that she could paint a word picture of every aspect of the trial.

“It was just a matter of how fast I could type,” Guerra said.
Luther Turmelle, who is usually The New Haven Register’s Cheshire reporter, was sometimes that newspaper’s Twitter-only reporter at the trial. He said that it was sometimes hard to make decisions instantly about what was appropriate to repeat to readers in a trial that featured explicit and disturbing testimony about violence and sexual assaults.

Instead of going through an editor, as his articles do, his reporting was usually available long before witnesses had finished speaking. “It’s a little scary,” Turmelle said. “You’re reporting and there’s nobody to edit you but yourself.”

One avid consumer of the Twitter reports was Paula Hepler of Windsor, Connecticut, who described herself as a stay-at-home mother “who probably should be a reporter — or a detective.” She said she was addicted both to the important and the incidental facts of the case she learned by following several Twitter-using reporters.

Though she did not attend the trial, she displayed a command of its personalities and logistics, including the rules for lining up to get into the courtroom and the fact that some spectators had gone without lunch to keep their seats. “I like the play-by-play,” she said.
The play-by-play has not gotten universally positive reviews. An alternative newspaper, The New Haven Advocate, suggested “the nonstop verging-on-voyeuristic” Twitter coverage had reduced a horrific trial to entertainment.

In an interview, Paul Bass, the editor of The New Haven Independent, an online paper, said blogging and other forms of electronic communication had great potential for re-energising journalism. But, he said, “Every fact in a gruesome trial as it unfolds is not that important or relevant. It’s just gossip.”

So far, using Twitter to report trials is clearly a work in progress. At times, the short messages were about the reporters rather than the trial. “Jury is taking a break. We can berate,” NotesFromHeL said as the wait for the verdict grew tense. A minute later.
NotesFromHeL again: “Oh autocorrect, I loathe you. Should have read: we can breathe.”
The jurors are back and they deliver their verdict.

News8Now: “Guilty.”
GeorgeColli: “Guilty.”
NotesFromHeL: “Guilty.”

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