Memo to Local Media: Stop Live-Tweeting the Sandusky Trial

Philly reporters are flooding Twitter with annoyingly obsessive coverage of courtroom proceedings

John Bolaris tweets a lot. Since joining Twitter on June 30, Bolaris has tweeted almost 5,300 times, or a little more than 30 times a day. Sample Bolaris tweet: “At the aquarium with my girl fun fun fun.”

Occasionally, Bolaris lapses into sports play-by-play. The first time I noticed it was an afternoon game on Sept. 20. The Phillies would lose their third straight game that day, 4-3 in 10 innings, to the Washington Nationals. Bolaris delivered play-by-play—sometimes down to every pitch—nonstop that day. Sample Bolaris play-by-play: “WALKING HIM, give me a FREEKIN break nationals, what the hell do u have to lose.” What made this great is it was just one day after the Phillies clinched the best record in the National League; it was the first completely meaningless game for the Phillies that year. Plenty of people complained to Bolaris on Twitter, but he kept chugging along.

I bring this up now not to pick on John Bolaris. (Sorry, John!) Last week, there were two hearings in the Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal, preliminary hearings for Sandusky himself and for two Penn State officials (Tim Curley and Gary Schultz) charged with perjury by a grand jury. Sandusky waived his preliminary hearing Tuesday morning, so there wasn’t much action on Twitter that day. But news organizations made up for it Friday.

In both tweets from their own accounts and retweets of reporters, local news organizations tweeted in graphic detail. 6ABC tweeted 22 times from the trial. The Inquirer tweeted 24 times. CBS 3 tweeted 59 times (including, “Last minute instructions now and then it’s time for this hearing to begin!”). Fox 29 sent 97 tweets (including, “Sheriff places water on MCQ’s stand…”). Philadelphia Weekly, where I worked from 2005-2009, tweeted a whopping 149 times. If you follow those five accounts, that’s 351 tweets about the Sandusky case that day—which translates to 12 days of John Bolaris tweets.

I’m a jerk for criticizing this. All the reporters and news organizations involved have good intentions—informing the public, bringing attention to the underreported crime of child sexual abuse, etc.—and it’s not like I use Twitter to report news. (I make jokes, create sports animated GIFs, make dumb Photoshops and tweet photos of friend’s cats.)

City Paper’s Dan Denvir thinks this these tweets are “icky and sensationalistic,” but I think all the reporters behind the tweeting are being straightforward. No one’s getting off on this. It’s just an overuse of Twitter.

In a reply to criticism—specifically, a Twitter conversation that started by asking PW and the Inquirer, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”—PW‘s Michael Alan Goldberg responded that “we believe that staying silent about sexual assault has never helped anyone, ever.” True, but I think a week’s work of tweets in one day is overkill. Sure, my sample is self-selected, but most people on my timeline were complaining about the constant stream of trial tweets. Several said they were unfollowing.

News outlets, including all the ones in my little sample, tweeted furiously from Occupy Philly’s eviction from Dilworth Plaza late last month. This makes more sense. Police raids on protesters are fleeting events and powerful people may not always want the exact happenings reported, so on-the-scene dispatches are vital. Courtroom proceedings, however, have a stenographer recording every word. There’s no need to record every second on accounts usually just used to post links to stories.

My favorite thing about Twitter is that there are no rules. There are just 140 characters, and you can use them how you wish. It’s like a sonnet. (“You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”) But I do think we could all stand to tweet (or post on Facebook) a bit less about everything—this year I’m hoping to drunk tweet fewer 1 a.m. West Coast NBA games nobody who follows me cares about—but I don’t see this happening.

And this was only the first hearing! Reporters will continue to flood our Twitter timelines with lots of tweets about the Sandusky abuse scandal, Andy Reid press conferences and how sad they are over the cancelation of Community. With any luck, John Bolaris will soon be tweeting “Give me a FREEKIN break Sandusky.”