In Kansas, Twitter puts court reporter in touch with the community

In an elevator in a Wichita, Kan., district court in 2008, Ron Sylvester realized Twitter was changing how he practiced journalism.

Sylvester, a longtime court reporter for The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com, had just finished covering a murder trial. It was the second time Sylvester had covered a trial live, and the first time he had used Twitter to do so.

As they rode down in the elevator, the mother of victim Chelsea Brooks turned to him and asked, “How is your knee?”

It was not a random question, and it showed Sylvester how he had changed the way readers viewed him in the community.

Sylvester posts professional and personal updates on Twitter. One of those personal tweets mentioned his need for a post-trial knee surgery.

The mother had been following his coverage. On the elevator ride, she opened up the conversation based on the human, not journalistic, information Sylvester had shared online.

Creating a personal connection

“The worst part of the job,” Sylvester told me, “is having to talk to victims’ families.” He now thinks an active presence on Twitter and other social media networks can help in such encounters.

Readers “like to know I am a dad … not just someone who covers grisly murder trials.” The more readers “know about me, the more they can decide if I am trustworthy or not.”

That echoes research I wrote about earlier this month. Engaging on social networks, and even posting reporters’ photos with stories, increases media credibility and trust, according to research by Doreen Marchionni at the University of Missouri.

Sylvester’s courtroom tweeting boosted his credibility in the courthouse, too. Early on in his coverage of that trial, he was interviewed by the ABA Journal, a publication he figures every lawyer and judge in town must read.

The next day in court, everyone wanted to know, “What is this Twitter?”

Fast, frequent updates key to trial tweeting

Sylvester had live-blogged a trial a few months earlier. He emailed updates to the office, where they were edited and posted by an editor. That process was too cumbersome, he said.

The feedback boiled down to readers wanting faster, more frequent updates. For the next trial, of accused murderer Ted Burnett, Sylvester and his editors decided to try Twitter.

He began by tweeting jury selection. By testing out the process during an early phase of the proceedings, they figured it was a good opportunity to “fail quietly” if it didn’t work.

At the time Sylvester had a few dozen followers, but readers quickly took notice. He started seeing replies on Twitter in which people told friends that the Eagle was covering the trial live.

“They know me”

The feedback from regular readers has been the most fulfilling, he said. As a reporter, “usually you only hear from people when you make them mad,” he said. “I have really started hearing the good stuff” since he’s been tweeting trials.

That goes back to the nature of the relationships on Twitter and Facebook. He notes that on social networks, people aren’t called “readers” — they’re “friends” on Facebook and “followers” on Twitter.

That’s a significant change for journalists. Rather than writing for an audience, he said, “I am sharing information with the community.”

Many people, he said, “never pick up a paper or go to a news website.” But they are on Twitter, or more likely Facebook. They learn about riots in Egypt or happenings at school board meetings through those social channels.

Sylvester advocates being where your community is, and Twitter is one of those places. In the past he might have been an anonymous byline in the newspaper. “Now,” he said, “they know me.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/SSBohio Steve Brack

    Josh, your two turns of phrase, “humanity without advocacy” and “tone without bias” sum up something about journalism that I’ve thought for quite some time, but couldn’t quite put into words. In fact, I’ll put it even more strongly: in order for the public to trust your journalism, they need to see your humanity. Thanks for putting succinctly what I’ve at times spent paragraphs trying to explain.

  • Anonymous

    Josh – thanks. It definitely takes a new approach, but tough to argue that being ‘more human’ is a bad thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joshawtry Josh Awtry

    Damon — thanks for the column. While some in our business cringe at the thought of blurring the line between humanity and journalism, I think that “humanity without advocacy” and “tone without bias” are key to our future successes.