For anyone who still doesn’t believe that social media is changing the way we get news, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. It seems that everyone is using social media. Celebrities, major brands, mom & pop businesses, municipalities, even my 9 year old cousin are using social media to connect. Today, one of the biggest advocates of social media is the media. Most reporters and media outlets are using social media to connect to their audiences and deliver the story first in the competitive, fast-paced world of news.
One of the most recent (and best) examples of the media harnessing the power of social media was the news coverage of the Steven Hayes trial. Arrested for the 2007 home invasion and brutal murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, Hayley Petit and Michaela Petit, Hayes finally had his day in court and the trial was covered locally and nationally via every kind of media outlet imaginable, from television to online, print to social media. What really struck me as unique to this trial was the amount of news coverage coming out of the courtroom via Twitter. Thanks to the power of social media, we no longer had to wait for the 6 o’clock report or the morning edition of the papers. The public was instantaneously informed via Tweets from trusted news sources and, at the same time, could be redirected to websites for the full, more in-depth story. I’ll admit it, I found myself sneaking some time here at work to find out what was happening in the courtroom. I’d log onto Twitter and search for #Hayes and would get a stream of live reports.
Among the first on the scene to Tweet about the trial were Helen Ubinas from the Hartford Courant and Rachel Guerra from WTNH. Helen is a columnist and author of the blog “Notes from HeL” and Rachel is an assignment desk editor at News 8 and award-winning print reporter. I had the chance to catch up with Helen and Rachel to discuss social media’s impact in the newsroom, how it affects traditional reporting, their special Tweeting techniques and much more. Let’s find out their thoughts.
You were one of the first to report from the Hayes trial using Twitter. Let’s start with your view on social media. How is it changing traditional reporting? Do you see it as a compliment or a competitor to traditional media and reporting?
Helen: Both – and that’s a good thing. We talk a lot about the need to engage readers these days, and I think Twitter is a natural tool for this. With live-tweeting, print media has the immediacy that we’ve been struggling to get for a while now. Where other mediums had the jump on us while we wrote or called in our stories, we are now able to get the information out just as fast as any other news outlet. And even more importantly, in my opinion, we can use Twitter to go a step further by not just putting out the 140 character highlights but also directing followers to more in-depth coverage in columns and articles.
Rachel: The only way it has changed traditional reporting, is it provides people who can’t get to a television, real-time updates right from their desktop or phone. For example, if the President has a speech on a major issue, or when Tiger Woods spoke for the first time during a mid-day press conference, many relied on a Twitter feed to find out what happened. You can now get (from reliable news sources) get the ”CliffsNotes” version of a story immediately and wait for more details later on.
Does it compete with traditional media? No. If anything, just like when the internet first came about, social media is another way for news outlets to brand themselves in this new age. It’s a great opportunity for news outlets to create synergy between their television product with the online world. Many times when giving folks a breaking news update via Twitter in only 140 characters, we ask people interested in the story to tune in or read more about it on our website wtnh.com.
Where do you see social media in the news room? Do you think people’s jobs someday will be to report live only via social media?
Helen: God, I hope not. As useful and powerful as I find social media, I also think we need to view it as just one tool in this new world of journalism. Immediacy is great. Engaging readers is key to our survival. But the only way we’re going to keep readers or followers is by also offering accuracy, context and insight – and that doesn’t come from a 140 character tweet. That tweet, however, can direct followers to a blog, column, article or TV spot with context and depth. And what I found with people who were using Twitter to follow the Hayes trial is that they were also just as voraciously reading our court reporter @alainegriffin’s up-to-the-minute articles and my weekly columns on the case. Sure, they wanted the fast and furious tweets. But they also wanted to take a step back and read something that took all of that information and told them what it meant.
Rachel: Absolutely! I have already noticed a number of job listings by companies looking for social media experts. Media Bistro, a leader in journalism news and jobs, has formed a job category just for social media.
What were some of the challenges you encountered as you covered this trial using social media?
Helen: The endless Twitter digs from inside and outside the courthouse got a little old. But the biggest challenge was keeping all my devices charged. We weren’t allowed to plug anything in during the trial, which made sense since it could be distracting and because there really weren’t enough outlets to go around. At one point, I tweeted that it looked like the iPad gods threw up in the room. After a stream of tweets whining about my waning lap top battery, my bosses came through with a loaner iPad. The battery on those things are made for live-tweeting lengthy events.
Rachel: Many are afraid, mainly reporters, that Twitter will dwindle readership and viewership. That has yet to be proven. I am not sure how I feel, but for now, it seems as though followers still tune in, go to our website or read a paper to get more information.
Describe how you approached the trial, from a journalistic viewpoint keeping in mind you were using Twitter.
Helen: I’m not sure I approached it any differently than I have any assignment since I’ve been a reporter. Twitter may be a new medium, but the old journalism rules apply. Or at least they should. And rule number one is accuracy. Is it harder to get it right when you’re putting stuff out as quickly as you hear it? You better believe it. But you can just as quickly put up another tweet correcting yourself. And I did that on more than a few occasions – especially when the iPad’s auto correct made for some unfortunate tweets. At one point, I apparently had someone in the courtroom drinking Monet. Another read as though Steven Hayes went to the Congo. Bottom line is Twitter is one way to bring the reader/follower along for the experience. That means, of course, tweeting court testimony almost as a court reporter would. But it also means setting the scene for them, telling them about the long lines to get into the small courtroom, about Judge Blue’s infectious jovialness, about the woman whose “New York, New York,” ringtone got her booted out of the courtroom. It brings some much—needed levity to the moment. But it’s also an accurate depiction of what court is really like – which as anyone who has been in one, is nothing like any of the T V dramas.
Rachel: The Hayes trial was difficult, mostly because the details are so gruesome. At times I felt I had to show a little restraint and edit myself when it came to certain words. I also put up warning tweets to followers when sensitive or graphic testimony was ahead. Bottom line, you have to be responsible, it’s just like writing an article or an on-air report.
A trial has so much going on at once and court proceedings move pretty quickly. How did you keep up? Did you use any special techniques?
Helen: Everyone wants to get the information out first. But I decided early on that no matter how fast I type, I wasn’t always going to be the quickest. So, I tried not to stress too much about that. Plus, at least from my seat next to @rachelrguerra and @georgecolli and @laurieperez, there was some real camaraderie there. If I missed something, one of them would fill me in. And vice-versa. That’s what I consider the underutilized and underestimated power of the retweet. Some people may view retweeting as competition, but I don’t. I want people following me to not only read my tweets but others who are meaningfully covering the same event. It’s not just about putting your stuff out there, but also building a community of information. And sometimes retweeting some testimony allowed me to concentrate on the reaction to it that I thought followers would find interesting. In fact the day of the verdict, three of us tweeting decided that one of us would tweet the verdict, another would tweet the family’s reaction and the third would be keep a close eye on Hayes’ reaction. I think it worked.
Also, not to sound like an iPad spokesperson (though I’m available if they need one) but we figured out that you could save drafts of tweets on one, which came in incredibly handy during the 17 count verdict against Hayes. It also made me look super smart to my bosses – which always helps.
Rachel: Nothing special, just tried to pay close attention and type as fast as I could. If i missed a detail or wasn’t sure about something, I just didn’t tweet it.
What did you use in the courtroom to cover the trial? iPad? Laptop? Phone?
Helen: All three. I started out with my laptop, then moved onto a loaner iPad. Early in the morning (most mornings I was at the courthouse by 5:30/6 a.m.) I would use my phone to conserve the battery on my iPad, but also to post pictures of the TV live trucks lined up outside, the ever-growing line of reporters and spectators hoping to get into the courtroom and anything else I thought would be interesting to followers. Once inside the courtroom, though, it was all iPad.
Rachel: I used an IPad.
To anyone who says social media isn’t that important, what would you say to them?
Helen: Come to the dark side – we have cookies. Actually, that’s a line from my favorite T-shirt. But hey, whatever it takes to get people to understand the usefulness of Twitter. Look, I completely understand the discomfort people have with social media — especially when it comes to delivering something as sensitive as news from inside the Steven Hayes trial. The fact is that anyone can start tweeting, and that is a good and bad thing. The source of news, even through Twitter, should be responsible and trustworthy – I get that. And I can completely appreciate why reporters might be leery about something that on its face looks as though it’s competing with all of their hard work. Just as quickly as something happens, or a verdict is declared, Twitter allows us to put it out there. But as I said earlier, and as I’ve told fellow reporters who haven’t warmed up to Twitter yet, I think Twitter compliments the more traditional reporting we all hold so dear. Yes, people want the headlines, especially in a court case like this. But then, what I found, is that they want to know what it all means. So that allows us a second opportunity to use good old fashioned journalism to tell people what it all means and why it matters. Many, if not most of the followers reading Twitter, were just as interested to read columns or articles about the case.
Rachel: Get on board, because this is the way of the future. It has become an essential part of our newsroom and will be a way of life for many others.
I’m pretty curious – how many Tweets do you think you sent out during the trial?
Helen: Enough to break Twitter. OK, not really. But I swear that’s what I thought happened when during especially compelling testimony none of my tweets would go through. This happens, when Twitter is overcapacity, or just freezes. But apparently there is also a 1,000 daily limit to status updates. (It’s actually a little more complicated, but I’ll leave it up to users to get all the details) If you wait a couple of hours, you can start posting tweets again. But — note to Twitter: you don’t have a couple of hours to wait while you’re live-tweeting from court.
Rachel: 1,537 tweets in all from day one on September 14th to verdict day on October 5.
Lastly, anything else you’d like to add?
Helen: There are a lot of good people tweeting out there – and not just within the building I work in – though I do recommend @CapitolWatch for politics, @erdanton for music and @desmondconner for sports. Depending on what you’re interested in, there is likely a person tweeting about it. Interested in Connecticut politics? Check out @thetrough. Mother Jones reporter @MacMcClelland’s on-the-ground live tweets from Haiti are just amazing. Arnold @Schwarzenegger is a great source for unintentional humor. He posted this classic in August: “Northern CA is the upper body, Southern CA is the lower body, and the Central Valley is the abs. You can’t neglect the abs, candidates.”
As a tweeter, the thing to remember, I think, is not to spend too much time trying to figure out what percentage of your tweets should professional and personal. I link to my stories, to stories by others that I find interesting. But I also post tweets about my day, or just observations about you name it – which probably no one is all that interested in except myself. The point is that the best thing to do on Twitter is to just be yourself – it’s amazing how quickly you can figure out if someone is being real in 140 characters. And if you don’t like a certain person’s tweets than the good thing about Twitter is that there are lots to choose from. Kelly McBride from The Poynter Institute said it best – Twitter is opt-in technology. So if you don’t want to follow someone because you don’t like them, or their style, or even the quantity of their tweets, then don’t. There’s nothing sadder than a Twitter troll.