Wed, 05/24/2017 - 00:16

Posted by Nicole Blanchet... on March 20, 2012

In the second part of a J-Source series on covering the Michael Rafferty trial, an inside look at using Twitter in the courtroom. James Armstrong from Global News is one of the many journalists tweeting testimony. So how do you keep journalistic checks, balances, and integrity in check--and decide in a matter of seconds what horrific details of an 8-year-old's alleged rape and murder to share with the public? It's just as challenging as it sounds.

While courtrooms are generally open to the public, it is a rare occurrence that journalists are allowed to tweet from inside.

The trial of Michael Rafferty—accused of killing 8-year-old Tori Stafford—is different.

It has evolved from a proceeding that is typically reported on sporadically throughout the day, to a live event followed on Twitter.

The tragic loss of the smiling Woodstock girl has brought news agencies ranging from small locals to large, national organizations to a London, Ontario courthouse. By special permission, the judge is allowing us to report from an overflow room created to accommodate the growing crowds of spectators.

Global News sent me, as online producer, two broadcast reporters, and a field producer to sit in court and listen to Tori’s story.

But the details of the trial, and the ability to tweet in real-time from the overflow room led to many people asking, “What should be told, and what should be left out?”

Are the graphic details of Tori’s death a noteworthy component of the story? Do we need to know specifics about what was allegedly said by Rafferty or McClintic during the murder?

The first day that Terri-Lynne McClintic—currently serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to the murder of Tori—took the stand against Rafferty, the overflow room was full: Extra chairs were brought in, people stood, people sat on the floor.

While the journalists had to be there, the members of the public chose to hear the details of the events leading up to and including the alleged rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl.

Though many people sat through testimony that can only be described as horrific, several left in tears. 

Others cried openly.

Before the trial started, my coworkers and I sat down and discussed what things we would, and would not, report.

We decided not to report every graphic detail, instead believing we should focus on the overall narrative to tell the story of Tori and her accused killers.

Essentially, we were told, report what you feel is necessary, but use your own judgment. However, it’s impossible to know ahead of time what you will hear or what may be offensive to readers.

It’s hard to describe the thought process involved in choosing to report some details while leaving others on the courtroom floor. Especially without actually writing some details here, but – I can’t.

Some of the testimony was just so appalling it would serve only to shock rather than inform. To include it in this story, or the tweets I’m sending out from the courts, would just draw the attention away from what should be the focus: Tori.

But even when focusing on Tori, it’s difficult to know what may or may not cross the line of appropriateness, and to make that decision in a matter of seconds without any vetting process.

As a live-event like any other, the trial requires us to report as it evolves.

Information changes, more information comes to light and we sit, take notes, and tweet every prescient point.

After the first day of McClintic’s testimony, a journalism student tweeted that hearing about Tori’s screams for help was too graphic and crossed a line.

While I disagree with her, believing instead that describing Tori’s calls for help gives a slight, though not complete, picture of how she must have felt, it made me realize that everyone will feel differently about details from the trial.

Some may want to know every graphic detail, while others may just want to know the final verdict.

That subjectivity was also evident in the tweets by other journalists, some not tweeting the level of detail that I was, and others tweeting more detail than I thought appropriate.

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Though Twitter has been used effectively to live-tweet elections, riots, and revolutions, to tweet a murder trial is different. The words ‘tweet,’ and ‘murder’ sound diametrically opposed – two things that at first glance, just feel wrong.

But tweeting the trial, I believe, helps provide another layer to the coverage. It gives people who may not want to sit and watch a two-minute piece, complete with the editing and storytelling journalists take so much pride in, a chance to digest the story as it happens.

What that means for traditional journalism in the long-run is a story in of itself.

James Armstrong is a Senior Web Coordinator with Global News with a focus on Toronto. He holds a degree in History and Philosophy from Acadia University in Nova Scotia and is a graduate from Sheridan’s Journalism New Media program. You can reach him on Twitter @jamesarmstrong7

You can read the first part in this series On Rafferty, McClintic and their role in Tori Stafford's final day: How much detail is too much?, here.

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.