around the bar
August 6, 2009

Judges All Atwitter Over New Media

Judge Susan Criss advocates the personal and professional use of social media as fellow panelists look on.

Judge Susan Criss advocates the personal and professional use of social media as fellow panelists look on.

The proverbial camel’s nose is under the tent, or perhaps we should say, the Blackberry is in the courtroom and the tweets are finding their way out.  As the iceberg of communications change pokes its head out of the waters, judges, lawyers and journalists alike are wondering what’s beneath the surface and how old and new media will co-exist in coverage of courtroom proceedings.

At an Annual Meeting session, “Courts and the Media in the 21st Century: Twitterers, Bloggers, the New Media, the Old Media, and What’s a Judge to Do?” judges and journalists confronted the reality of rapid and sweeping forces shaping the media landscape. 

Bridging the gap between old and new media, and perhaps old and young audience members, Ron Sylvester, a veteran court reporter for the Wichita Eagle, provided an overview of what the Internet has meant to the coverage of court proceedings in the last 10 years.  He introduced Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube and gave a brief description of each.  To give a sense of how usage has exploded, he reported that Facebook has grown 198 percent in the past year, while time spent on Facebook per user is more than an hour a week, or a 240 percent increase in a year’s time.

Adding some personal perspective on use of these tools, Sylvester said they are “good for personal relationships, connecting with old friends and classmates.”  But he warned, “be careful who you add as a ‘friend’,” because whatever you say can be seen by everyone on your network and by their friends, as well.  He followed with the “new rules” of social media, commenting that online “it’s a community with friends, followers, fans and groups.”  And it’s also a “conversation with comments and replies.  You are talking with people, not to them.”

In addition to looking at the overall social networking environment, Sylvester also acquainted the audience with his experience in Wichita, Kan., covering the courthouse with Twitter and video.  Using a keyboard and cell phone, which together are smaller than a legal pad, Sylvester tweets closing arguments and jury verdicts for trials in real time.  He is able to link to other source material, making more information available to his readers and making the process more transparent at the same time.  His daily blog. called “What the Judge Ate for Breakfast,” posts two-minute videos on different aspects of courtroom procedure as well as interviews with prosecutors, deputies and others in the court about their everyday work lives as a way of educating the public. 

Sylvester also introduced the shorthand for online lingo, acquainting the crowd with terms like OH (overheard, so be careful what you say in elevators), DM (direct message), DMFail (when instead of sending a message directly to one person, you send it to the “whole world” inadvertently), OMG (Oh, my god), LOL (laugh out loud), and WTH (what the hell).  He also instructed on the difference between Twitter and a “tweet,” which is both a noun (the product) and the verb form of Twitter.

Time to rethink classic media relations

Saying “It’s time to sit down and figure out, not just how new media is used, but how all these old rules can be modified,” former TV journalist and current executive director of the Better Government Association Andy Shaw implored the assembled group to use the new age of technology to open the door to “reexamination of the relationship between judges and the media.” He said, “we can’t read newspapers during recesses, but yet we can tweet” and he expressed frustration with the inconsistency of courtrooms from community to community on their policies regarding cameras, computers and other reporting tools.

David Redmonini, a former journalist, now chief deputy executive director for the Division of State Court Administration in Indiana, encouraged judges to “be pro-active to take advantage of new media.”  

After a quick, unscientific audience quiz designed to show whether judges were “media darlings” or people who needed to hire a public information officer immediately, Redmonini demonstrated an economical way to use new media for educational purposes.  He showed a sixty-second what’s-new-this-week-in-the-courthouse clip of his public information officer, which was made in two takes with his Blackberry and posted on YouTube in less than five minutes.  “Don’t let technology or cost stop you from doing this type of activity,” he advised.



Social Networking Caveats for Judges and All Professionals

In a very instructive presentation on the implications of social networks for judges and lawyers, Judge Susan Criss, an active social media user, provided caveats for her fellow judges.  Overall, she believes use of social media both professionally and personally can be tools that enrich the jobs of judges and lawyers and help them “do [their] job better,” if used thoughtfully. 

Criss has observed lawyers who post about everything, including stories about their kids and pets. Others use social networks to promote their businesses and to look for experts, which Criss believes are effective and acceptable ways to use social media.  On the less-than-positive side, she told of a Houston district attorney who was forced to leave his job because of sexist and racist posts, and of a prosecutor with an anonymous blog advocating for a specific candidate by posting mean, strongly worded stories about a political opponent.

Further no-nos include venting when attorney-client privilege might be violated, writing information that contradicts what was told to the judge in court and discussing relationships with other lawyers or colleagues.  She quoted one lawyer as writing, “I’m off to court this morning to kick the crap out of a cocky a** lawyer.”  Judge Criss advised fellow judges to add use of social media to their instructions to jurors and carefully monitor their own social networking presence for reasons of security and privacy.

Learn More About:  Annual Meeting 2009