This week, journalists are bunkered down in a London, Ontario courtroom to cover the trial of Michael Rafferty, who has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, sexual assault causing bodily harm and abduction of a kid named Tori Stafford. His former girlfriend has already pleaded guilty to murder, and her testimony during Rafferty’s trial was extremely upsetting to read — let alone report on. Her testimony continues today.
A liveblog gives readers a seat in the courtroom and allows for a more accurate, detailed account of the proceedings, which is especially improtant with a case this complex and emotionally driven. But producing real-time reports from a horrific trial comes with a unique set of challenges.
Livebloggers faced similar hurdles when covering the sentencing for rapist/murderer Russell Williams last year. It was noteworthy because the judge allowed reporters to publish right from the courtroom, a fairly new concept in Canada. I wrote a series for Canadian journalism news site J-Source about how the media handled the coverage (some better then others).
Rafferty’s trial was a bit different. For one, the victim was a child abducted three blocks from her small-town home on the very first day she was allowed to walk home by herself. Secondly, the trial judge banned journalists from transmitting data from the courtroom. So any real-time coverage has been produced either in a nearby satellite courtroom, or by reporters rushing out duringbreaks and madly filing updates from laptops or smart phones.
Of course, the much more pertinent issue for reporters lies with the content itself. How do you cover all the grisly details of a horrific story without offending your readers?
Each liveblog was prefaced with a warning about graphic content, some reporters even put warnings in individual posts when the details got too grisly.
On the first day of the trial, CBC News’ liveblog was updated by a reporter using Scribble’s mobile app to file text and photos, and was supplemented with live Twitter updates from two other reporters. Since cameras aren’t allowed in the courtroom, the CBC posted a courtroom sketch instead.
Global News Toronto is using Scribblelive to curate tweets from their reporters on the scene, including TwitPic photos snapped during scrums.
It’s important that reporters understand the language of court — the wrong legal term can completely change the context of an update. That’s why The Globe and Mail sent its seasoned police and crime reporter to liveblog the proceedings.
The Globe had two reporters covering the trial. In an article, national editor Sinclair Stewart explains the paper’s strategy: “It was primarily to ensure that our staffing was commensurate with the significance of the story,” he says. “The public’s interest in this case, not surprisingly, has been extraordinary.”
“When you’re dealing with allegations that are this brutal—and, to many, this incomprehensible—the public has more than a thirst for justice: It has a thirst for exposition, and for the media to help them make sense of what happened. Having Tim [Appleby] and Adrian [Morrow] at the courthouse has also given us more flexibility in terms of how we deliver the news to readers.
“Because Adrian is in the media room, he can both tweet and provide live updates on a running web file [liveblog]. It enables us to have a two-pronged approach, getting into the more granular, incremental news throughout the day, and then sharpening the narrative for print.”
The trial continues today.