Trials & Litigation

Microblogging of Conn. Murder Trial Has Some Media-Watchers Atwitter

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The number of journalists using Twitter to cover the trial of one of the defendants accused in a home invasion and triple murder in Connecticut has some media-watchers wondering about whether such “haiku journalism” is an appropriate way for a publication to supplement other trial coverage.

Some reporters have been doing Twitter coverage of trials for years. In 2009, federal judges in Iowa and Kansas expressly approved such reporting. Though some other courtrooms across the country do not allow cellphones and electronic devices.

Chris March, an online producer for the New Haven Register who tweeted the aforementioned trial of Steven Hayes in Cheshire, Conn., told the New York Times that tweets were in part replacing cameras not allowed in the courtroom for this trial, as the personal reactions of the reporter are fair game for tweets.

“You’re just looking for whatever is interesting and put it there in that text window,” March told the Times.

But Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent, told the Times he has his doubts. “Every fact in a gruesome trial as it unfolds is not that important or relevant. It’s just gossip.”

Norm Pattis, a criminal defense lawyer in Connecticut and columnist for the Connecticut Law Tribune, writes that he thinks reporting isolated facts out of context doesn’t have much value.

In this case, the husband and father of the three women killed, Dr. William Petit Jr., is a witness for the prosecution.

“Reporters have tweeted about Dr. William Petit Jr.’s every movement,” Pattis writes. “We learn that he touches his head, he leans over, he sighs in response to testimony. … I wonder what sort of social chemistry is created in a courtroom when reporters focus on a victim and spend their time studying him and reporting his every move. … Can it be said with confidence that the jury in the Hayes’ case have not been influenced by the fact that one of the state’s key witnesses has been given the Michael Jackson treatment?”

Allowing radio or television in the courtroom would be preferable alternative to tweets and clacking keyboards, Pattis writes: That way the trial’s content would be reported unfiltered.

Related coverage:

Connecticut Law Tribune: “Awaiting a Verdict on Tweeting From the Courtroom”

Updated Oct. 20 to add related coverage.

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