Live-tweeting from the Whitey Bulger trial

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

First there was the court artist, sketching scenes from the stand; then came the televised trial. The latest evolution in court reporting is live-tweeting from the courthouse.

The trial of a major crime figure is always going to capture the attention of the public, but how can you provide real-time updates for a curious public when TV cameras aren’t permitted inside the courtroom? This was the dilemma facing reporters covering the trial of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, convicted this week.

For CBS WBZ Boston (@cbsboston) TV journalist Jim Armstrong (@JimArmstrongWBZ), reporting the trial became “one of the most intense experiences of my career.” Not only did he report from in front of a camera over the breaks, Armstrong live-tweeted during the hearings and verdict.

“In federal court, where cameras are not allowed, Twitter became a tremendously valuable way for me to explain what was happening,” says Armstrong. “Had the trial been televised, viewers could have seen for themselves what was going on minute-by-minute. So to compensate for the lack of TV coverage in the court, I tweeted minute-by-minute (or at least it felt like it was that frequent on some days!) to describe the courtroom and everything going on.”

Live-tweeting lets reporters deliver timely updates directly to their audience where cameras aren’t allowed.

Armstrong’s Tweets gave his followers a view into what it was like to witness the conviction of a mobster. “I tweeted out earlier that afternoon that I was going to do the whole verdict on Twitter, but with 32 counts — one of which had 33 acts underneath it — it was a monster of an indictment … When the clerk started reading the verdict form, I was sending Tweets like mad, keeping track of the verdicts on my own form, and double-checking to make sure I got everything right.”

Like many reporters, Armstrong used Twitter as his virtual notepad — a way to record events as they happened for him to refer back to later. “I still kept another notebook for information that wasn’t fit for Twitter (things like exhibit numbers) but at the end of the day, I would review my Tweets and use them as my notes to write my subsequent stories.”

And that meant every aspect of an, at times, surreal trial.

To bring the news from Twitter back to the CBS Boston website, the CBS team created a Twitter list of its reporters at the trial and embedded their Tweets directly on their site. Twitter lists can include one account or 1,000 accounts. This one was comprised of just two journalists: Armstrong and newsradio reporter Lana Jones (@lanaWBZ). It was a simple way for the CBS team to embed Tweets from inside the courtroom in a single feed for online readers. Tweets from the feed were also shown on-air during breaking news segments.

The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) had reporters Kevin Cullen (@GlobeCullen), Shelley Murphy (@ShelleyMurph) and Martine Powers (@MartinePowers) on the ground tweeting events as they happened, and they also embedded those Tweets on the Boston Globe website:

Another journalist, Jonathan Hall (@JHall7) from 7News, tweeted pictures from outside the courtroom:

Boston’s reporters weren’t alone in their coverage of the case via Twitter — the District Attorney’s office tweeted key news:

As did the Massachusetts State Police:

Armstrong, who had reported from the scene at the Boston marathon bombings and is well-known locally, gained thousands of new followers from his proactive tweeting during the trial:

“Interaction with followers has been the best aspect of live-tweeting this trial,” says Armstrong. “People are so appreciative of the work that goes into live-tweeting; it’s so gratifying to get a Tweet or a DM from someone who says thank you or lets you know that they’re getting something of value out of my coverage. Even better, people can tweet me questions in real time, and I can answer them during court. So if something was unclear — either in the proceedings or in my explanations of them — I can address that right away. That real-time feedback is amazing. Some people are frequent commenters and I talk to them every day; there are others who will only write once. I think most people are surprised that I try to respond to every Tweet I get — but for me, that’s the only way Twitter works. It’s a two-way street.”

Thanks to Mark S. Luckie (@MarkSLuckie), Manager of Journalism and News, for contributing to this post.

Do you know of any more innovative uses of Twitter in reporting? Let us know at [email protected]