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Courtroom coverage by social media a welcome development

December 22, 2013

social media courtroomWhat goes on in our courts is a mystery to most American. What little coverage of proceedings there was is on the decline with the reduction in newspaper staffing.

Perhaps just as social media, blogs and all, is filling the void in general and niche news coverage, social media can fill the gapping void in courtroom coverage. Even shine a light on court proceedings.

At the request of Katie Mulvane of the Providence Journal (@kmulvane), Judge William Smith (@JudgeWESmith) of the Federal District of Rhode Island recently opened the doors to Twitter and live blogging for the coverage a widely followed criminal sentencing.

Though Judge Smith’s ruling was limited to those with media credentials, it’s a start. U.S. District Court rules prohibit journalists from bringing cellphones and electronic devices into the courtroom.

Judge Smith, who keeps an active presence on Twitter, told the Providence Journal’s Edward Fitzpatrick (@FitzProv), reporting on these developments, that he thought the social media coverage went great.

I was surprised there were so many tweets. [Channel 10 (WJAR) reporter] Jim Taricani’s thumbs must have been falling off. I heard from the public saying they had it on their iPhones and enjoyed following it.

The exception is now going to be the rule in Smith’s court.

Each judge has the responsibility to administer his or her own courtroom, but I was comfortable enough with the way it went that I am planning to make it the regular, default policy to allow credentialed journalists to bring phones, laptops or tablets to communicate via Twitter or blogs or other online social media.

The District Court for the District of Massachusetts may be a step ahead of Rhode Island. Tim White (@white_tim), covering the trial of gangster James J. “Whitey” Bulger and the hearings for a Boston Marathon bombing suspects for WPRI-TV in Providence, told Fitzpatrick that in both cases credentialed journalists were permitted to bring cellphones and laptops into the Boston federal courthouse.

White saw the use of social media as shining a light on a hugely important part of government:

While condensed versions of court action will appear on the evening news and in the morning newspaper, Twitter and other social media can provide immediate details without disrupting court proceedings. Based on what I experienced in Boston, it can work. —— Joe Six Pack whose uncle was shaken down by Bulger can’t leave the construction site to sit in federal court. TV cameras are not allowed in court, so this is the closest thing the public has to real-time updates to know what’s going on.

Judge Smith is spot on in telling Fitzpatrick that Judges need to be more responsive to the way people get information and the media gather information. “The more open we are, the more people will understand what we are doing.”

Fewer and fewer Americans are getting their news via newspapers and the nightly local news. They’re getting their news socially from others they trust – their friends. The news is being reported on blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the like. News not reaching these media isn’t received by the masses.

The public also expects, and demands their news immediately. There’s simply not enough time for a reporter to take notes in court, go back to the newsroom to write the story, and have it out the next day. That would be day old news.

Journalists need to be able to Tweet and live blog today. In addition, courts need to examine the rule of limiting social media coverage to “credentialed journalists.” Who’s to say a local citizen, perhaps even a practicing lawyer with a blog, can’t cover court proceedings as well as mainstream media. Having more journalists, via the “non-credentialed” route would also get us more coverage of the courts.

I’m interested in what other courts are doing around the country. What are you seeing as far as social media coverage of the courts in your area?