blog post: Courtroom Tweeting

originally published on ReadWriteWeb.com

Traditional news services once had a monopoly on breaking stories. Not anymore. Just as blogging seems to have displaced longer features in traditional media, micro-blogging sites such as Twitter are racing against (and often beating) news services to the scoop.

Does this make for better-informed citizens? Maybe.

Reporters glom onto Twitter to research info and broadcast stories to their readers. They may even attain the ranks of Muck Rack, a Twitter stream composed of the tweets of thousands of media workers, from reporters to managing editors to Stephen Colbert.

The tweet tsunami has hit the whole world. It’s still moving, and it promises to evolve as journalists dream up new ways of working with Twitter.

Some of the places where journalists are practicing their trade are raising eyebrows, too.

Take courtroom reporting, for instance. Wichita Eagle reporter Ron Sylvester makes ample use of his Twitter account (upwards of 10,000 tweets) to report on a range of trials. In Sweden, warbling over the Pirate Bay case grew tumultuous. The Ottawa Citizen’s Glen McGregor used twitter.com/obrientrial to document Mayor Larry O’Brien’s fight against charges of bribery and influence peddling (and illustrated a best practice of devoting one stream to a long-running news story).

But is Twitter better than traditional media for broadcasting news from a courtroom? One camp holds that tweets don’t do trial reporting justice. Another maintains that Twitter promotes judicial transparency and helps citizens stay abreast of trials.

Admittedly, the latter argument falls short should people try to make heads or tails of a three-month-long trial based on tweets from days one and two. But interested parties who can’t attend in person can benefit from the contributions of trained journalists, even if deep analysis can’t happen 140 characters at a time.

“Trained journalists” is an important caveat. While interested citizens armed with BlackBerrys can document a trial, their varying levels of skill elicit the Mark Twain-worthy quip, “I trust citizen journalists as much as I trust citizen surgeons.”

Imperfect tweeting should not pose a problem, though. Excessive inaccuracy and bias – and commentary discrediting them – appear quickly in a real-time world replete with news sources. Expect those who produce slanted streams to quickly lose followers.

For all this, the whole debate may not be worth the pixels they’re displayed on. The cat is decidedly out of the bag, and Twitter will probably carry blow-by-blow accounts of many future trials.

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