Newsrooms are using live blog technology as a gatekeeping tool for coverage during the Tori Stafford murder trial currently underway in London, Ontario. As journalists and editors grapple with efforts to provide real-time coverage of high profile cases, Twitter alone is problematic, as Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English pointed out recently. Professor Robert Washburn argues live blogs may be the innovative tool needed to get the job done.

By Robert Washburn

Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English provides an excellent explanation on March 23 for the Toronto Star’s decision not to tweet proceedings from the Tori Stafford murder trial currently underway in London, Ontario.

The Star editors decided to not report in real-time via Twitter and it is one of the few news organizations not using the social media software to immediately report as the evidence is being presented in court.

Instead, city editor Graham Parley has the two reporters providing several daily updates from the court to the website summarizing the testimony and a columnist is providing overall context.

Parley is quoted as saying he does not like tweeting because there is a lack of filters with the Twitter system, which posts 140 characters to an interface with no ability to delete anything once it is posted.

English also noted a recent paper by Carleton University journalism professors Mary McGuire and Susan Harada examining the use of social media in courts, noting the two academics urge newsrooms to find best practices for reporters and tweeting in these situations.

No doubt, newsrooms did some heavy thinking since the Russell Williams trial in 2010, where he pleaded guilty to murder and sex crimes. The new technology provided a non-stop tsunami of accounts from a host of journalists tweeting every gory detail. While some members of the public were fascinated by the accounts, still others were repulsed, spawning a debate within the industry.


However, this time around, there are some innovations being used to address some of the issues rising out of the Williams coverage. Live blog software like ScribbleLive and CoverItLive are acting as an aggregator, collecting various contributions from multiple sources to provide a steady stream of coverage.

The software is able to provide real-time coverage, but editors can add or remove items, giving far more flexibility and editorial control. Twitter feeds can be used, but moderated before going live, giving the “second-thought” and verification that can be so problematic when trying to do live coverage via Twitter.

Also, the live blog allows contextual information to be added to the stream, again providing information beyond the 140 characters. Several reporters can be used in a single stream. Pictures can be added. Links to reference materials, previous stories and other items, including comments from the audience, can add significant depth on occasion. Live blog technology continues to provide unique opportunities for creative approaches to coverage and is quickly expanding its use in the newsroom.

While this practice is a bit more time consuming and might cause a slight delay in posting, as compared to those who choose to be first via Twitter, it is simply a matter of accuracy over speed. The live blog allows editors to retain the role of sober second thought, a function that disappeared in the face of social media like Twitter.

As audiences become more sophisticated, they will seek high quality information that is reliable, trusted and credible. And, there will always be a portion of the audience who will seek the sensational. That is nothing new, even long before social media existed.

Once the trial is done, many editors and journalists will likely sit down to review the processes and procedures, one can hope. It would be a useful exercise and move towards the kind of practice and guidelines McGuire and Harada are urging.