Live tweeting trials seem to enhance people's engagement and understanding of court proceedings, according to the preliminary results of a study examining Twitter coverage in the courtroom inspired by the Chris Falconer murder trial in Pictou County, N.S.
In January, the judge in the trial allowed reporters to live-Tweet the court proceedings, giving members of the public a rare opportunity to follow the case as it unfolded in the courtroom. The courtroom was packed to the brim daily, so many people stayed glued to their computer screens, watching reporters fervently tweet the proceedings.
Margo Watt, a psychology professor at St. Francis Xavier University, and her students were some of the thousands of people who watched the jury find Falconer guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Amber Kirwan.
While Twitter posts may only be 140 characters each, string 100 or more tweets together and there's a detailed story.
"Sometimes I try to put myself in the jurors position. OK, what is the evidence? What is the evidence telling us? And I do feel a lot more engaged as a result,” said psychology student Catherine Gallagher.
Fascinated by the coverage, Watt and her students began researching how Twitter coverage of the trial influenced their view of the case.
She also launched a public survey asking people how Twitter coverage of the trial influenced their view of the case.
Learning on social media
"We had over 500 participants which is really good for a study like this,” Watt said.
Watt says they discovered Twitter didn't really change people's perception of the justice system, however participants reported that it enhanced their understanding.
They also saw Twitter as more educational than other media sources like print, TV and radio.
“There was an educated value. They learned something over and above what they learned from other sources,” said Watt.
According to the results, "high-Twitter users appeared less persuaded by the evidence and outcome of the Falconer trial."
Twitter has also changed the courtroom landscape for lawyers and judges.
“It is good for the public to see or read what is going on through the day in a courtroom as opposed to seeing a few column inches that are written in a newspaper ,” said John Piccolo, spokesman for the courts in Nova Scotia.
Watt says she plans to continue researching the impact of social media on high-profile criminal cases.
She says her study produced more questions than answers.
Participants ranged from age 16 to 77. The average participant was a 36-year-old white woman.
As it stands, reporters needs to request special permission from the judge to tweet from the courtroom.
A new Twitter policy for all levels of court in Nova Scotia is in the works, the details of which are expected to be released soon.