On Oscar Pistorius and social media journalism

Natal Witness front page
Natal Witness front page

I have spent most of the past week obsessively watching the bail hearing of Oscar Pistorius unfold on Twitter. I’m not proud of this.I’m not a big celebrity trial, sports follower, scand

almonger kind of journalist. I like the initial gory details as much as anyone, I guess, but wallowing in the details of blood spatter and cricket bats soon gets a bit too personal for me, and I keep imagining what was going through her mind, and his, and well, it’s just horrible, and regardless of the actual trial outcome, lives have been ruined, and nobody wins in this case.

On the other hand, as a journalist, a South African, and a follower of social media, this story has everything. I know the places involved: the police station where Pistorius was held was built on the old playground of my primary school; I know some of the people: I taught at least two of the journalists prominent in covering the trial, Barry Bateman and Karyn Maugham; I understand some of the issues involved in violence in South Africa, and in violence against women. And of course, it’s all playing out on Twitter and social media, so this is clearly relevant to my interests.

I gave a lecture on Thursday on the trial coverage, and why it is so much more explicit than would be permitted in the UK (or Canada). The short version comes down to the lack of a jury, meaning that publication likely to influence the outcome of the trial is a much higher benchmark to reach (after all, what judge is going to rule that his fellow judge is susceptible to having his legal expertise corrupted by press coverage?), and the stronger constitutional right to freedom of expression. Of course, there’s still libel to consider (especially in the UK), and it seems probable that the various sources of information are within the police service, and possibly being compensated for being a source, which is a whole separate issue.

But what really interests me is how specific a skill covering a trial (or hearing) on Twitter is, as is following it. Some of the journalists present clearly understand what is needed to keep the readers up to date, and understand how to write concise updates that both explain what has happened, and keep the reader engaged in the story. It clearly requires intense concentration, and speed – it’s not like the proceedings stop for the journalists to update their feeds. Recognising a good point to summarise, a good quote as it goes past, composing the post, sending and keeping an ear out for next point seems like a unique new media skill, and for the best journalists, at the end of the day, the feed still reads as a summary narrative of events. As someone who cannot watch TV and tweet about it without getting hopelessly behind, I am in awe of this skill, and want to know more about it: how it is done, how to teach students to do it, how to develop it better.

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