Solving the editorial puzzle of online trial coverage

By on March 8, 2012

Laura AmicoThis is one of a series of blog posts from the first ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows describing their experiences and sharing their knowledge with the community. Fellow Laura Amico, along with her husband, Chris, is the founder and editor of Homicide Watch D.C. in Washington, D.C., a website that covers every homicide in the nation’s capital, and includes news, obituaries, profiles, court documents and memorials.

I’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks in trial, watching the government try to prove that Rickey Pharr shot and killed Angelo Jones at a craps game in Southeast D.C. in October 2010 because he believed that Jones was cooperating with the government in a police investigation.

The trial took place in fits and starts. More than a dozen bench conferences delayed the proceedings, and, at one point, a fire alarm forced the evacuation of the courthouse. Witnesses, as you might imagine, were not thrilled to testify in this case. One young man who did not respond to court when subpoenaed to testify was arrested and brought to the witness stand in a jail-issued jumpsuit.

After five days of testimony and about one day of deliberation, the jury found Pharr guilty of first-degree murder.

For much of the trial, I was the only reporter in the courtroom. Homicide Watch D.C. was the only news outlet to cover the trial at all before the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a press release with the verdict the next day.

Trials are difficult to cover. Typically, in murder cases, they involve a story that’s evolving over the course of several days, weeks or even months. What might be assumed to be the lede — the jury’s verdict — doesn’t come until the very end. But, from the beginning, the public wants to know what’s happening. The other problem is that evidence isn’t necessarily presented in a narrative. Witnesses testify out of time sequence, based, in part, on how their stories corroborate future testimony. As a reporter, I sometimes feel as though I’m trying to explain what a completed puzzle is going to look like when I’m getting random pieces and I haven’t been given the box.

Reporters deal with this in a variety of ways, including courtroom tweets, video blogs, online Q&A’s with reporters, live blogs and periodic updates.

Part of my strategy to trial coverage is to ask myself what readers want out of it. Here’s my list of what I think readers are looking for:

  • To know the motive of the crime.
  • To know what witnesses say and who all the people involved are.
  • To know a synopsis of the case.
  • To understand the legal maneuvering and questions involved in the case.
  • To not be surprised when something happens.
  • To understand the timeline of the case; to know always what comes next.
  • To know the verdict.
  • To be able to find the information easily.
  • When I think about editorial approach, I ask myself which of these needs I’m trying to address.

    For the Pharr case, my day-end wrap-up posts typically addressed the editorial questions of motive, witnesses, synopsis of case, legal background and timeline. I organized the information on the same victim and suspect pages that I used before the case went to trial. This meant that people who already had bookmarked these pages knew exactly where to find the updates. It also meant that people searching for case updates on the internet would find them thanks to Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

    Then, I think about what I need out of case coverage. For example, I’ve learned to leave flexibility in my editorial plans. In this case, I decided not to publish the names of witnesses who testified. I wrote about the decision in a Tumblr post saying:

    These people’s names are a part of the public record of the case and it’s likely no secret in the neighborhoods they are from that they testified in this case. Their names and their actions are already likely known by anyone who cares.

    In many newsrooms that’s reason alone to publish the witnesses’ names and, a year ago, I perhaps would have. But for this case I decided against it.

    The case has been marked by threats and intimidation. That the witnesses didn’t want to testify (some even struggling to form sentences while on the stand), is reason for me to take their emotional and physical well-being seriously. My gut tells me that allowing them some privacy in this difficult task is the right thing to do.

    And then, there’s flexibility for humanity. Reporters often are taught to wall off their emotions from what they are covering because it can be overwhelming to be immersed in — for example, the deeply personal experiences and tragedies of families facing murder trials. With the Pharr case, however, I had to allow myself to feel what was happening in the courtroom. Again from my Tumblr:

    A young woman, connected to the defendant, sat quietly crying in the courtroom long after the verdict was read. I waited outside for the families. The victim’s sister saw me and ran up to give me a hug. She didn’t know what she wanted to say yet, but promised to email a statement from her family later in the afternoon. Her mother already had an idea of what she would say. She wanted to thank the courts for giving her family justice. And then she remembered: There was no justice. “It doesn’t mean that I will get a Mother’s Day card,” she said of the verdict. “They took that from me.”

    I cried a little on my way home. For the mothers on both sides. For the defendant’s young son, and for the victim’s young children, too. I thought about the attorneys and detectives and all the witnesses who were part of this case, imagining how they felt in this moment. I thought about the jury, wondering if, with the decision made, the weight was lifted. Their faces, as the verdict was read by the foreperson, showed weariness.

    There are no walls that could have kept me from all this. No way to block off the emotion. When I think about it, I’m not sure that I’d really want to.

    Reporting, at its purest, is about witnessing. About being present. About being open to receiving all that is going on around you. To have closed myself off from the emotions of today would have meant not really reporting this story.

    The story isn’t over yet. Sentencing in the case is about two months away. In those moments, when the judge rules what punishment is appropriate for this crime, I am sure that I will think back on today. Not because I think a short— or a long— sentence is appropriate, but because I have a sense of what is at stake for so many people affected by this case.

    Three more murder trials are scheduled over the next several weeks here in D.C., and I’ll be applying these lessons to how I cover those cases.

    In the end, what I hope to build for each case is a resource that helps the public understand three things: The merits of the case, the cause of the crime and the impacts of the crime and verdict on families and friends of victims and defendants.

    Slide photo is by Boltron via <a href="