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Twitter in the Courtroom: Here's Why it's So Valuable - 07/05/13

by Evan DawsonThe common complaint about Twitter goes something like this: "Why do I care what you had for lunch? Why do I need to know that you enjoyed your morning coffee?"
We get it. There is plenty of superfluous pablum floating around on Twitter. But that misses the point that Twitter has become a tremendously valuable medium for the news media.
Never was that more clear than in the recent trials of Mark Scerbo and Megan Merkel.
From start to finish, the trial process lasted nearly a month. It centered on the events leading to the death of beloved Fairport teacher and mother Heather Boyum. Because Boyum was so active in her community, there were hundreds of people who wanted to follow the trial's developments. They were colleagues at Fairport high school, or family in other states, or members of the group Moms In Motion. 
Or they were people who never met Boyum, but were angry with the circumstances surrounding her death. They cared about Boyum's widow and two young children.
For this large group of people, Twitter became the most immediate and effective way to follow what was happening at the Hall of Justice. Most of them couldn't be in court to follow along; they had jobs, or other commitments, or were too far away to get to Rochester. They came to rely on the reporters who consistently covered the trial. They relied on Twitter.
Keiko Vann, a member of the Moms In Motion, joined Twitter so she could follow the developments. When it was over, she tweeted to me, "I wanted to personally thank you for tweeting during the Heather Boyum trial. I could not go to the trial and the way you told us what was going on was so useful."
Over and over, I received comments just like that one. Mary Eggers wrote, "We thank you for being there for us." Rich Pulvino wrote, "Thank you for the honest, insightful reporting on the Scerbo trial." Members of the extended Boyum family from out-of-state wrote to me, explaining that Twitter was the most helpful tool they had to fully understand what was happening in court. The irony is that while Twitter is often maligned as being a short-attention-span form of media, allowing only 140 characters per tweet, a collection of tweets from a courtroom can offer more insight than many basic news articles or stories. 13WHAM viewers might have struggled to understand how the juries in the Merkel and Scerbo trials reached their decisions. Those who followed on Twitter had a much fuller understanding of what each charge entailed, and how the attorneys on both sides presented their case. 
And yet some judges don't allow reporters to tweet during trials. In the Scerbo and Merkel trials, Judge Doug Randall allowed the media to tweet from the back row, provided they not disrupt the proceedings. We appreciated and understood that. But my colleague Sean Carroll has encountered several cases in which he was told to leave his electronic devices at the door. 
We've never been given a good reason not to tweet.
Yes, there is always the concern that a reporter sitting in a courtroom could hear something incorrectly, and tweet inaccurate descriptions. That's why we're so careful to double-check a name, or a fact, or a piece of witness testimony. Most of it is clear, thanks to microphones and good audio settings. But we're sensitive to getting even the small details right, and we're quick to correct if we're ever wrong.
Of course, if New York State would join the majority of the country in allowing cameras in court, we'd have a much fuller record of trial proceedings. The public would have access to public events. Our tweets would serve those who can't attend but want to follow trials, and in high-profile cases, our video could be streamed live online. It's vital for the public to be allowed to monitor what happens in public courtrooms.
So here's a renewed call for all judges to recognize the value of Twitter. We're not tweeting for our benefit. We ask judges to listen to the Keiko Vanns, and the Mary Eggers, and the Boyum family members who relied on Twitter. We ask them to think about the Fairport high school staff members who told me they were refreshing Twitter every five minutes, looking for new information, desperate to follow the events. 
Speaking of Twitter, you can search under the hashtag #openNYcourts to find more on the subject. 13WHAM News is committed to open courts and access for all.Twitter is just another form of public access, and it's past time for courts to make sure it's protected.

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