Editor’s note: this is part 1 of a 2-part series
Like it or not, your next case may be Twitter-fodder.
As I write, a Minnesota dentist who allegedly illegally hunted Cecil the Lion is possibly the most discussed man on the Internet, with over 1,800 recent news articles and 413,000 relevant tweets. Sorry, Tom Brady (approximately 242,000 tweets before falling off the top trends), maybe your minions can tweak Twitter.
This demonstrates public attention is no longer reserved for high profile cases or clients. Social media, the Internet and traditional media can quickly bring previously-obscure matters to the fore. Further, as court records become easier to search, unique or titillating facts that would have enjoyed practical obscurity in the days of paper, may be unearthed and shared by the media, bloggers, social media users or the public.
How can you be better prepared? I interviewed Democrat and Chronicle reporter Gary Craig to understand how social media affects coverage of legal matters.
Mr. Craig is well known for his coverage of high profile legal cases, including the 2015 trial of Thomas Johnson III, sentenced for killing police officer Daryl Pierson. Mr. Craig is also a 30-year newspaper reporter, winner of two dozen journalism awards, author of a forthcoming book on the 1993 multimillion dollar Brinks Heist (http://articles.latimes.com/1993-01-06/news/mn-1066_1_service-depot), an adjunct professor and an avid Twitter user (23,000 tweets).
In part one of the interview, we discuss how journalists use social media when covering legal matters and social media’s relationship to traditional media. Mr. Craig’s opinions are his own.
What are your goals when covering a trial? The defense lawyers I know hate cameras in the courtroom, but they love Twitter. They will follow the case on Twitter. I think you are, to a degree, trying to put the consumer in the courtroom in a way. There is only so much of [a case] that I can put in my story the next day. The people following on Twitter are getting more of a blow-by-blow while those reading the story are getting a more thoughtful piece.
You are known for live-tweeting [providing very brief, real-time updates of an event via Twitter] legal proceedings. Does the need to produce content on-the-fly interfere with gathering all the details? The immediacy of it is wonderful, but it is also problematic sometimes. The good part is that you are clearly building this audience. The bad part is that, for me, someone who really likes to get every detail from a trial, my focus is on feeding the Twitter beast, that I would miss stuff that I never would have before.
Do you think the in-depth of coverage through live-tweeting creates additional risks for litigants or interested parties? I don’t. One of the issues I hear from defense counsel and from prosecution is “We may have a witness outside following along on Twitter on their phone”. Yet, I think we always find ways to carve out a fair trial whatever the media-du-jour is. And perhaps we underestimate jurors. They are no more or less likely to listen than when none of this [social media] was there.
What makes you want to cover a case? My editors [laughs]. To cover a trial gavel-to-gavel it is going to have to be a pretty high profile trial … that the public is interested in.
Is there a civil case that piques your interest? Some of my favorite cases have been civil trials in federal court. I think you can intrigue people, but finding the time is the hard part.
Does the medium you are using, such as Twitter, affect which cases you choose to cover? It is going to affect, when I am in the courtroom, how I will handle it; but, it is not going to affect my decision whether to cover it. Even before social media, the cases that are very [interesting] or unusual will be covered.
Of all the social media platforms, would you say Twitter is the most popular among professional journalists? I would think so. When news breaks, it is where you go. You turn to Twitter immediately and then you filter the wheat from the chaff. I saw an obituary a couple weeks ago and thought “hasn’t that guy been dead for years” and sure enough someone had just come across the obituary and [recently] posted it.
Does using social media cause you to do anything differently? You are clearly more in touch with your audience than you would have been beforehand. You really know more about who you are communicating with.
Mr. Craig provided interesting examples of how he uses social media. I will cover those next month in part two. I will also offer tips for handling social media coverage of your cases or matters.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.