Fit To Tweet

The photographs, the descriptions, the truth. It was perverse. It was obtrusive. It was appalling.

So far, the court had heard about panties, open windows, an erect penis, young girls, drawers, lingerie, mirrors, masturbation, draped, daughters, sex toys, a “mystery little girl,” a sundress, a lip-gloss lips print page, naked, lubricant, a bunk-bed and subfolders. Some spectators left the courtroom at the onslaught of the disturbing details. Others gasped. Some wore blank faces. Others cried. The reactions were what Hurley and the other journalists had waited outside the courthouse since 4:30 a.m. that morning to see, hear and feel. It was the “colour” that Nguyen tweeted.

“It was an intense and emotional atmosphere,” Nguyen explained, “and that’s what I tried to get across instead of just transcribing what was being said.”

No one doubted that there was public appetite for the raw, rapid-fire account of the case, but there was backlash too—plenty of it—even with the worst evidence — the sexual assaults, the rapes and the murders —  still to come.

Many Twitter users questioned the news value of the “play-by-play.” Some unfollowed the journalists tweeting the case. Even some journalists criticized what was happening. The common critique was that it was just too much, too fast, too detailed, too unfiltered.

Social media isn’t like reading a newspaper or listening to a TV or radio broadcast, where there are often warnings before the story or segment. The audience can turn the page or change the channel. With retweets and RTs, Twitter users don’t have to directly follow the reporters covering the hearing to inadvertently see a graphic tweet on their feed. And while tweets were often part of a live blog housed on the new organization’s website or part of a hashtag stream, tweets are ultimately isolated on feeds. Warnings aren’t attached. Context is lost. Sometimes hashtags don’t fit. So while Twitter provided a free, handy tool for mass dissemination, was it the best medium for Hurley to share this information?

Hurley’s tweets were filtered into a ScribbleLive feed that was available on the Citizen’s website. An editor wasn’t monitoring the feed, including more information or attaching links to related stories and images. “We’re a family newspaper,” Hurley said, adding that the Citizen’s brand had a lot to do with how she edited her tweets. Other news outlets took different approaches to their real-time coverage:

    • CityNews also used a ScribbleLive feed, which updated via email messages from reporters Pam Seatle and Marianne Boucher and text inputted directly into the software by a moderator named melissa.cox.
    • The Globe and Mail had reporters Greg McArthur and Timothy Appleby filing updates using Cover It Live, which specializes in live-event publishing, with Jill Mahoney hosting the coverage, linking to Globe stories and providing other information from various sources as it became available.
    • CBC News also used Cover It Live, with reporter Amber Hildebrandt updating the feed from the courthouse, updates from “CBCKim” and moderator Lianne Elliot was posting updates, some with warnings, from CBC’s team in Belleville including Cheryl Krawchuk, Dave Seglins, Melanie Nagy, Patrick Morrell,
    • Toronto Star reporters Joanna Smith and Dan Robson were tweeting updates that were being posted on a Cover It Live stream. A moderator was publishing links to Star stories, displaying previously reported facts to offer context, and longer reports from Steve Russell and Jim Rankin.
    • Maclean’s had reporters Michael Friscolanti and Cathy Gulli maintaining a makeshift live blog on the magazine’s website without a third-party software.
    • Global News had reporters Mark McAllister and Ottawa correspondent Shirlee Engel tweeting on their personal Twitter accounts. The tweets were featured on a live blog on Global’s website, which was updated with web stories, videos, photos and any pertinent facts.

McAllister said he held back in his tweets, taking a more reserved approach with the details he was disclosing in real-time and saving the decision to publish controversial information for a later discussion with his editors. “The overall sentiment was the public had a right to know about these crimes and what exactly happened,” he said. But for Global News, finding the right amount balance of disclosure was an utmost priority. “Is this the need to know, or is is this too much information?” McAllister asked himself before he published a tweet. “I made a point of holding back,” he added, “and to be frank, I would hope people appreciated that.”

Next: The Dilemma

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