More reporters tweeting from courtroom

High-profile trials can increase reporters' followers by thousands
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There are some readers who only know her as @rummanahussain.

“I know people who don’t read the newspaper,” said Rummana Hussain, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. “But they follow my tweets.”

Hussain, who covers criminal courts, has been reporting for a decade, but is a rookie at Twitter. She started tweeting in January, and already has around 700 followers. She generally tries to tweet at least once a day — a low number compared to, for example, Ron Sylvester, a courts reporter for The Wichita Eagle in Kansas who can easily send out a dozen tweets a day to his roughly 2,800 followers.

Tweeting from the courtroom is de rigueur nowadays among courts reporters. It’s a fast growing trend, especially in competitive markets.

For example, in the involuntary manslaughter trial of Dr. Conrad Murray in the death of Michael Jackson, the Los Angeles Times’ @latimesMJ sends out courtroom tweets to its’ nearly 8,600 followers. The local ABC news station set up @abc7MurrayTrial and has sent out nearly 1,900 tweets to about 3,000 followers.

Courtroom tweets, in general, tend to give quick updates throughout the trial such as when a witness takes the stand. Reporters will also tweet out observations that may not make it in the article, but that their followers may find interesting. For example, the Orlando Sentinel’s Twitter feed about Casey Anthony, @OSCaseyAnthony, sent out this observation on July 5 right before the jury announced its verdict, “#CaseyAnthony is flanked by six of her attorneys. She appears to be sitting lower, making her look smaller than her defense team,” to over 40,000 followers.

Hussain said for high-profile cases in Chicago, she tweets “every five minutes.” But there are times, such as during federal trials, when she’s not even allowed to bring her cell phone or laptop in the courthouse, she added.

There is no set standard regarding tweeting from courtrooms and the rules tend to vary from state to state, and at times from trial to trial.

Some judges are fine with tweeting, like U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett of Sioux City, Iowa. When a Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter asked if she could tweet from the courtroom while covering the tax fraud trial of a local landlord, Bennett took a few days to think it over, then agreed. He asked that the reporter sit farther back in the courtroom so her typing would not be distracting, according to the ABA Journal.

“I thought the public’s right to know what goes on in federal court and the transparency that would be given the proceedings by live-blogging outweighed any potential prejudice to the defendant,” Bennett told the ABA Journal in 2009.

There are some judges who oppose it vehemently. Chief U.S. District Court Judge David C. Norton of South Carolina signed an order in August that banned all wireless communication devices in courtroom facilities.

Sylvester said by outlawing Twitter, “you are effectively shutting people out from the courtroom who care about these proceedings.” Sylvester said he has had victims’ family members, especially ones from out of town, who were not able to attend trials but followed him on Twitter instead to monitor the case and thanked him afterwards.

“If you say no tweeting, you might as well say no reporting allowed,” he said. “I do think it’s a First Amendment issue. The Constitution says you are entitled to a fair and public trial.”

Sylvester said using Twitter is an integral part of his reporting now.

“It’s become part of what I do,” he said. “I come from the industry formerly known as newspapers. All my life we were a second day news source and people would get their breaking news from broadcast. But now (Twitter) puts all news organizations on equal footing.”