Tweeting to excess: The trial coverage of #bosma and #ghomeshi

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Over the past week or so I've been following the coverage of the Tim Bosma murder trial on social media. Well, specifically, on Twitter. 

For those of you who don't know, Dellen Millard, 30, and Mark Smich, 28, are charged with first-degree murder in the death of Bosma, a 32-year-old father who lived in Ancaster, Ontario. Both have pleaded not guilty. 

Bosma was last seen alive in May 2013, when he took Millard and Smich for a test drive in a truck Bosma was hoping to sell. 

It is a tragic and sensational trial, in its early days. The story of Bosma's disappearance, the anguish of his young wife and his murder and incineration kept the Hamilton community riveted for weeks three years ago. So, it is no surprise that the courtroom proceedings have attracted intense media attention.

The print and online reportage has been detailed and extensive and has provided most Hamiltonians with sufficient information so that the wheels of justice can be seen to be turning as they should.

But that detail is nothing compared to the kinetoscopic jitter and hum of the real-time postings jetting from the blurred thumbs of court reporters and columnists in attendance.

"Millard is swivelling in prisoners box to see potential jurors. Smich glances over."

"Examined rear view mirror for prints. Lower, right corner."

For the coterie of fascinated spectators on Twitter, that near-OCD stream of every gesture, tear and utterance seems to be a gift filigreed with detail:

"Great coverage from @mollyhayes and @susanclairmont on the #Bosma trial. wearing out my 'refresh' key on my browser. Keep up the great work!" wrote one diehard follower. 

"Following #Bosma trial? Excellent live tweeting from @susanclairmont and @mollyhayes of Hamilton Spectator. Like being in court." posts another.

"Thank You!!! With Out [sic] your tweets we would have to wait to hear what is happening ! #stuckatwork"

But as only a curious observer of the pages of tweets the trial has engendered, I see it differently. It is a disjointed stream of decontextualized ephemera, often verging on the mawkish.

"Just got a long, tight hug from Hank #Bosma, Tim's father. There are no words," tweeted Spectator columnist Susan Clairmont on the first of February. 

Of course, who Ms. Clairmont got a hug from matters not a whit. It does not reveal the machinery of justice, it only panders to her audience. 

And the unorthodox use of Mr. Bosma's first name by trial journalists who never met the man is a jarring tic that runs through the often-sentimental commentary on Twitter. It is emblematic of coverage that seems to be playing to a rapt audience which appears to have an insatiable appetite for the courtroom chum. 

The Bosmas are referred to as Tim and Sharlene. The accused are Millard and Smich. First name good, last name, bad -- a linguistic legerdemain of which a passion play would be proud.

A perfect storm of excess

From my position as an observer of the Twitter stream of #bosma, it appears to be an unhealthy ecosystem. The egos and competition between the reporters, the rivalries, the fortifying feedback loop of those #stuckatwork, the news outlets' hunger for audience and a culture attuned to The Making of a Murderer all come together in a perfect storm of superficiality, bathos and excess. Or, as a local journalist on Facebook put it: "It seems like a massive media pissing contest to me."

The staccato stream of snippets also decontexualizes the trial. A friend of mine commented this week, "A court trial is a complex, nuanced play and reporting in real time on each actor's 'line' would be like 'seeing' Hamlet tweeted by an audience member."

And, of course, journalists who are feverishly tweeting have less time and concentration to pay attention to the more subtle aspects of the proceedings. They are not multitasking, but they may be missing the forest for the tweets. It used to be that print journalists mocked and derided broadcast colleagues who had to file hourly. How, we wondered, could they say anything meaningful with so little time for considered contextualization? Now we have even print reporters putting reflex before reflection and who place more value on stacking up first-to-post victories than the careful sifting and organization of cogent appraisal. 

Of course, the Bosma case isn't the only victim of coverage that measures out a story in coffee spoons. Down the road, in Toronto, the concurrent trial of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi is getting the same real-time coverage of minutiae.

"We are back in court. #Ghomeshi taps co-counsel's arm and speaks to her. Turns to write down notes. Adjusts his suit," tweeted Chatelaine's Sarah Boesveld. Ms. Boesveld at times supplied an almost word-for-word stenography of statements.

The relentless coverage from Boesveld and others prompted responses like:

"Is anyone else disgusted with how self absorbed the media is in #gomeshi?"

"Both trials about to overshadow each other w ghoulish fascination #gomeshi #bosma"

Years ago, before Twitter, I had the pleasure of working beside the great court reporter Kevin Marron, of The Globe and Mail. Back in 1985 to 1987, we covered a horrific ritual abuse custody hearing, he much better than I. He was a model of decorum, analysis and restraint. 

In 1995, I watched as my newsroom colleagues Paul Legall, Wade Hemsworth and Barbara Brown covered the 52 gruelling days of the Bernardo trial with compassion and diligence. They were fair without being familiar and their writing had humanity, and humility. 

I've been on Twitter since 2007. I've seen it break and amplify news. But this stenographic, bathetic coverage only amplifies what's wrong with Twitter in the courtroom. Trials are reality, not reality TV.

And, what do we say about news organizations that allow such excess to continue to the point of embarrassment? There are no words. 

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Maryland GovPics/flickr

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