Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.

#Trials on #Twitter – the #Stephenlawrence case

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I’m not a legal expert. I’m not even a regular court reporter. But I was one of the BBC team assigned to cover the Stephen Lawrence murder trial at the Old Bailey in November.

I am also the BBC broadcaster who used Twitter to present “breaking news” programmes about the verdicts and sentences given to  Stephen Lawrence’s killers this week.

This is not a polished article. It’s my attempt to reflect on the uses – and perils – of using Twitter in our courts. Thank you for your comments on the issue; do keep the feedback coming!

A little about me first. I love using Twitter as @PhilippaNews. It keeps me in touch with stories & contacts around the world, and I enjoy what we’ve come to call the curation of news – sharing links on everything from London life to Arab Spring politics to the US election campaign.

But this was the first time I’d used the social media channel as another form of broadcasting.

What follows isn’t statistical analysis, but some reflections about my experience of tweeting the trial – how it worked, what it lacked, and what Twitter followers said to me.

It’s a story of two halves – the weeks of the case, where I was tweeting about the evidence as it was presented in court – and then the fast-moving hours covering the outcome, where I was talking to camera while using BBC reporters’ Twitter accounts as my primary source of news.

WHAT WE DELIVERED
From day one of the trial on Monday 14th November to the day of the verdicts on Tuesday 3rd January, I sent out hundreds of tweets from my @PhilippaNews account.

At first, it was just something I wanted to do for myself. I don’t have an official BBC Twitter account.  But as the lawyers delivered their opening statements, newsroom editors were keen to encourage the stream of information – coming from me, from Home Affairs reporters @mattprodger & @BBCDomC and also from BBC London’s @GuySmithreports.

It’s not something a reporter should be obliged to do. I think it depends on the way you work. There is a danger when writing notes, thinking about scripts, and texting tweets, that you can miss the subtleties of legal argument, the way that a line of questioning is being developed.

Whenever the judge told the jury to take a break,  we would make a beeline for the BBC’s Jeremy Britton – our hugely experienced court producer – who would invariably have taken an immaculate short-hand note of the key quotations from his bench at the back of the courtroom.

But it did strike me that because of our ability to tweet, and to file copy directly by computer from Court 16, the BBC had less need of news agency copy and was able to be more self reliant.

We were able to tweet because the trial  judge decided that we could do so. Thank you Mr Justice Treacy! From now on, following a ruling last month by the Lord Chief Justice,  reporters will be allowed to tweet as a matter of course from courtrooms in England and Wales.

I think we’re in the middle of a revolution in the way British journalists cover justice.

HOW YOU RESPONDED

Hundreds more people followed me on Twitter  during the trial because they wanted to  – they wanted to get key developments and dramatic quotes “in real time”. They liked spreading the word – within seconds of it happening in court – to others, often to family and friends who felt passionate about the Stephen Lawrence case.
But at first, I assumed I was providing a supplementary service – a broadcasting extra for a minority of the audience.  I thought I was talking to people who were already following the case in detail, in their newspapers, on radio or TV.  What I didn’t anticipate was the appetite for following a “trial on twitter”  as a core news service. And I was intrigued by signs that I was reaching different audiences.

When we broadcast on traditional TV news bulletins, viewers tend to be older. But on Twitter, it seemed that many who began to follow @PhilippaNews during the trial were younger. Many were from ethnic minorities. Many felt very strongly about the core issues of the case – racism, violence and justice in British society.

And I had a number of responses from followers who were dipping in and out of the story during the day – on work computers or on mobile phones – rather than waiting to get home to view the more formal TV news.

Here are a few of the comments I received.
— From Mohammed El-Khateeb @Mwkhateeb4 Jan
@PhilippaNews Guess using Twitter puts more focus on Trial, esp. for younger generations who’re always out & about that don’t watch TV much

— From A Williams on this blog : :I was able to follow the trial whilst at work. For me the character limitation was useful given the pace. The tweets I read were consequently fact – direct quotes and stage directions, omitting comment which in this case would not have been appropriate. Useful in that it also made me aware of more up and coming journos rather than the main faces. Content won over popularity.

— From Emma Cameron @EmmaCameron94 Jan
@PhilippaNews I’m a writer, not a journo, interested in the trial, found your tweets very clear, immediate and helpful, thanks

— From @doings 4 Jan
@PhilippaNews I dont watch much news, prefer twitter feeds from misc journos. TV news tends to be inane, but you were great.

WAS IT GOOD JOURNALISM?

Hmm.
Yes, for the drama of breaking news.
Not necessarily,  for the actual court reporting.
As a BBC reporter, I still think my Twitter stream during the long days outlining forensic evidence was at best a good supplementary service for  those most fascinated by the story.

However, I did find that thinking for Twitter helped to focus my mind – it made me work harder for example on choosing the words to sum up forensic evidence.

But as I noted above, there are pitfalls for journalists in trying to do too much, and failing to do anything properly – the common lament of our multi-tasking multi-media age.  It’s something we have to address,  however enthusiastic we are about using social media to reach out to new audiences.

With court reporting above all, it’s critical to deliver exact quotations – not paraphrases. That doesn’t tend to work on Twitter, which requires you to be succinct. On occasion we found that  where a headline quote emerged, we had to follow up: to let the newsdesk and the website know precisely which words came from the barrister and which from the twittering broadcaster.

And it’s important not to lose bits of the argument. The unfolding of evidence in court can be subtle, complicated, time-consuming. We might be writing a series of tweets to cover a single concept, but in our followers’ timelines, those tweets can be interspersed with others. That leaves it up to the Twitter user to reconstruct the full picture.

There are also potential problems with the nature of Twitter activity – the enthusiasm with which followers can retweet and embellish your original posts.  I’ve just been talking about this with colleagues on the newsdesk. One experienced correspondent raised the issue – what if your name is on a tweet which is circulated elsewhere, appearing in isolation and out of context? As professional journalists, we’re trained to deliver contemporaneous court reporting and to be impartial. Once your tweets are posted, you lose editorial control. I think the same could be said of a piece of video or an online commentary,  but again it’s a risk we should recognise.

USING TWITTER TO COMMENTATE
On 1430 at Tuesday January 3rd I sent out my last Lawrence trial tweet:
“#stephenlawrence jury coming in – could verdict be imminent? – watch #BBCNewschannel”.
Then the tables turned – the Twitter stream shifting from a tool to a source – as I relied on it for hours of live commentary. Within seconds of the jury foreman announcing that Gary Dobson and David Norris were guilty of murder, and the judge telling them they were to be “detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure”, we used Twitter to deliver the story, the reaction, the colour, and the quotes.

But in true BBC fashion, I want to put that bold statement into context. These were the key factors.

— I had sat through almost the entire trial. I had heard the barristers making their detailed cases for prosecution and defence. I had seen the scientists’  photographs of minute specks of forensic evidence. I had studied the timeline of the handling of forensic exhibits over the best part of two decades. Above all, because the BBC had assigned me to the case for the full seven weeks, I had the ability to put tweets and texts into perspective for the viewers.

Trying to deliver breaking news via Twitter from a standing start would be an entirely different – and daunting – proposition.

— Twitter was not the ONLY source, but it was my primary source of breaking news. When we ran out of the Old Bailey after learning that the verdict was imminent, we began our broadcast using the tried-and-tested technique of  our court producer Jeremy Britton texting the information from the courtroom. He was the man trusted to tell us that the jury had verdicts to give, that it was a double verdict on both Dobson and Norris, and that the judge had lifted his reporting restrictions straight afterwards.

— It mattered immensely which Twitter accounts we followed. Perhaps that’s too obvious to state: it’s a basic rule of journalism to select the most credible sources.  We relied above all on the BBC’s Matt Prodger and Dominic Casciani.  Like me, they’d been sitting in court throughout the weeks of evidence and argument, and knew the case inside out. I was able to have a brief chat with both of them on the morning of sentencing so they knew I’d be quoting them directly. They knew I was looking for “colour” – dramatic emotive details. And they provided a stellar news service in those highly charged minutes when the murder verdicts were delivered, and the following day when the sentences were handed down.

BBC producer Sally Graham was the woman with the smartphone just off camera, handing me her handset as I spoke to the lens.  She was filtering for me, judging which tweets were “ours” from BBC sources, and which tweets from other sources – like the Guardian crime correspondent Sandra Laville  – could be quoted to give our viewers powerful extra details.

And when Sally passed me the phone, I then chose whether to broadcast what I saw. A  few tweets gave me information which I thought might disrupt the flow of the moment, and was better mentally filed away.

And again, I can’t stress enough –  it mattered that the BBC had assigned me to the case as a whole, rather than just sent me to break the news on verdict day.

A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS

Reader Steve Wheeler left this comment here on the blog :
“I think that Twitter is no longer optional when it comes to breaking news, I think all that is in doubt is how much you and your colleagues will embrace it.”

I agree that for journalists gathering news, it’s not optional. It’s essential.  And for those breaking news dramas of the verdicts and the sentences, my use of Twitter certainly got a lot of reaction.

Reader Margherita Douglas sent this to the blog:
I thought it was a gripping way to show the story unfolding, I was watching/listening you as I read tweets from various other journalists at the same time and felt like I almost could have been in that court room

This tweet was posted by Patrick Dodge @bokkenpootjes when I asked for comments for this article.
@PhilippaNews Will never replace TV or newspaper, but you use twitter quite well for live events

This tweet came from S McGivern @SMG61
@PhilippaNews You created a good sense of narrative and the twitter news source was quicker than actual News

Neil Primrose sent me this delightful feedback from @Neil_in_Norfolk
@PhilippaNews You’ve done an astonishing job making something hugely complex & harrowing human & manageable.Incisive skilled live journalism

And I can’t resist this one from Graham Spencer:  @hermanworm :
@PhilippaNews I’ve tried to convince a sceptical friend of the point of Twitter. Will use your fantastic work this week as shining example.

But how about the wider BBC audience?  From a majority point of view, is this all a lot of fuss over very little?  How many British news consumers use Twitter? What do those who don’t, feel about seeing us quote from tweets – appreciative, bemused, annoyed?

And as for court reporting, will we look back on the buzz about Twitter as hopelessly old-fashioned just as soon as we get the cameras in ?

Just as I was writing this paragraph, a tweet popped up from Rebecca S in Brighton :

@scandals66: “won’t live cameras will be in court soon? Surely, tis a transient, if gripping, form of justice reporting”.

I wonder what you think.

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

5 thoughts on “#Trials on #Twitter – the #Stephenlawrence case

  1. Great to hear you on @BBCR4Today Phillipa, and then to find the Blog! Making history is not always easy, but, as you point out, you have now discovered & reached & “new” audience with a thirst for News, but not open to the way that News has been delivered in the past. It’s almost like you’re now a translator – interpreting Breaking News into a medium/language (140Chars) to make it digestible for a new following (I’m one of them, even though I don’t fit the “younger” profile!)
    Keep up the good work. Thanks ;))

  2. I live in Serbia and have come across the whole Stephen Lawrence case by chance really, going through news on the BBC website. It was the verdict day that day and I followed your reporting through the live stream on the News website. It was absolutely astonishing in the sense that I, having never before even heard of the case, was completely able to understand its impact and the whole context in which the story had been developing. It really showed that you were putting something extra in the coverage, especially in the clear sense of importance of the case to the UK that was apparent even to me, living in a completely different country and culture after all. So, for me personally the tweets were truly priceless as a source for your coverage. I do think that it was some indeed great work and thank you for that.

    • Dear Filip, that’s really good to know – and a great example of the website & twitter pointing you to a story you might otherwise never have found. Thank you for taking the time to comment. P

  3. Hi Philippa,

    This blog post is great – very interesting to read. In fact, so interesting that it inspired me to focus my undergraduate journalism dissertation on tweeting from court! I am currently beginning research for this and would be really grateful if you were able to help me. An interview with you for my research would add so much to the dissertation. If you could contact me (my email address is amberliehyde@live.co.uk) that would be amazing.

    Thank you,

    Amberlie Hyde

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