Under Pressure

By late afternoon, Hurley was on her way to accumulating 36 hours of overtime for the week. With no reserved seating for media in the main courtroom and an overflow room from which it was barely possible to see or hear what was happening, reporters were vying for a spot every day before 5 a.m. Each Citizen reporter had an extension cord to plug into a nearby power outlet and was equipped with USB sticks to access the Internet. Hurley’s job each day was to live-tweet the hearing, scrum with families, lawyers and victims outside the courtroom, and file stories every night by 9 p.m. Then, the Citizen team would debrief the day’s events.

“We would go to bed after the 11:00 news and be at the courthouse before 5,” Hurley said. “It was a really long four days.”

Hurley had been covering the story since Ontario Provincial Police and Belleville Police arrested Williams in Ottawa on February 7 that year. She had reached out to police sources to learn more about the crimes committed in Orleans, tried to located any other local victims, and considered whether Williams’ could be connected to any cold cases. She knocked on doors, asking women if they’d had their underwear stolen. She’d also filled in for the court reporter often enough to understand  how the courts worked and some of the intricacies of media law.

But there was no easing into the Williams case; live-tweeting a high- profile hearing means being alert to every word in case of a quote, and immediate decisions about publication. “You have two seconds to figure out how to phrase this tweet before another piece of information comes out,” Hurley said. “It’s difficult.”

City editor Peter Robb and other senior editors back in the Citizen newsroom didn’t police the contents or tone of Hurley’s tweets. She was calling the shots, making judgment calls based on whether the information would revictimize the victims, what the benefit to the reader would be and how the family would react to it. “When we got there, we didn’t get many guidelines on what they wanted us to do or didn’t want us to do,” said Nguyen. “It was the journalist’s call to decide what they wanted to tweet.” Sure, Citizen editors were monitoring the tweets and telling Hurley to tone it down. But, on the first day, it was a lot of trial by fire. Before publishing each tweet, Hurley would ask herself: What’s the benefit to the reader? What does it add to the paper’s coverage? And do we really need to know this information? But, is she asking the right questions?

Hurley didn’t have time to take notes or write web hits and maintain an up-to-the-minute Twitter stream, so the Citizen’s Bruce Deachman, who was in the Ottawa newsroom, was doing the writing. Deachman was emailing Hurley often, asking her to clarify the contents and meaning of her tweets. No detail regarding her online presence was too small, including the inappropriate smile in Hurley’s Twitter profile picture that accompanied every update. “I was smiling in it,” she said. “I had to give Glen McGregor my password and he changed my picture to something more serious.”

Next: Fit To Tweet

Leave a Reply