An Experiment in Grace: Major Case Covered by New Media Produces Satisfying Results

July 15, 2009

 

The story of widespread asbestos contamination in the timber and mining town of Libby, Mont., was well told by the time the criminal trial designed to assess blame rolled around in February. But the question loomed: As the news industry contracted, who would cover the story?

Andrew Schneider broke the news of Libby's health crisis in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1999. His stories triggered a decade of federal investigations and, arguably, the criminal suit itself. But his newspaper didn't live to see a verdict.

By spring, Schneider was covering the criminal trial of U.S. v. W.R. Grace & Co. and its managers and executives for his blog. The Post-Intelligencer had stopped publishing and also gone were the throngs of reporters who followed Schneider to Libby to meet for themselves the people poisoned by a dusty industrial disaster. Schneider's stories can be found at his website.

This is the story of how a large team of student reporters and legal analysts stepped in to fill a notable void in coverage of what The New York Times called, "A reckoning in one of America's worst industrial disasters." It was an experiment both in collaboration and the use of new media.

The Grace Case Project harnessed the energy of 14 undergraduate journalism students and 17 law students to cover the criminal prosecution — from jury selection to acquittal — of W.R. Grace & Co., and three of its former executives accused of intentionally poisoning a Montana town and conspiring for decades to keep that a secret.

In many ways the trial proved to be a one-room schoolhouse on environmental journalism. It featured dueling scientists, discussions of risk and risk analysis and close parsing of policy especially the criminal provisions of the Clean Air Act. The Grace trial challenged reporters to tell the broad social narrative of the established story of W.R. Grace's effect on Libby in the very narrow confines of an awkward, overcharged, federal criminal case.

The journalists in the group used new media to offer old-fashioned trial coverage. The law students used the weblog format to offer analysis and explanation of legal strategy.

This was not, of course, the first trial covered using Twitter and blogs. Ron Sylvester of The Wichita Eagle pioneered trial coverage via Twitter. And a team of four bloggers with Firedoglake.com took collaborative blog coverage into federal court covering the trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The Grace Case team built on those examples in size, depth and length — a bigger team, offering more analysis about a trial that ran longer than any previous live-blogged prosecution.

The trial ultimately ran almost three months — 35 trial days. Thirty-one reporters covered shifts in the courtroom, working in teams of two — one journalist, one law student. The weblog hosted dozens of background articles written by Grace Case Project participants and scores of links to additional coverage, evidence and outside legal sources.

Those who followed the trial said the weblog and Twitter format worked:

"The blog, frankly, is an impressive piece of work," Ashby Jones wrote on the WSJ.com Law Blog. "It features recaps of just about every moment of courtroom action, dating to Feb. 19, the day the trial began. It has links to evidence, bios of all the major players, and links to other news reports. Perhaps most impressively, from where we sit, is its insistence on making it accessible to non-lawyers."

That was a goal of the project: to provide trial coverage capable of informing at least two distinct audiences. Those groups were people personally affected by asbestos exposure, and attorneys and scientists interested in how this case played out.

The U.S. Environmental ProtectionAgency, U.S. Department of Justice and W.R. Grace, as well as the local provider for the town of Libby, were among the top networks viewing the site. Ultimately, almost 10,000 people tuned in at one time or another.

"Knowing that I've been writing for an audience, for real people with real interests and concerns, has made me put so much more care into the writing I've done for this class," said Carmen George, a junior journalism student. "Being a journalist is a very serious responsibility and obligation, and that only becomes real when you are actually doing the reporting for a real audience."

Twitter skeptics — including many law students and lawyers who had never used it — found it addictive to watch the realtime coverage. " "Their coverage provides amazing access to the courtroom," wrote Kate Bladow, a blogger with techno.la, a technology blog for legal aid and public interest advocates. "They are telling the story in a professional, yet engaging, way and in my opinion, it is much more fascinating than any episode of 'Law & Order'. " The tweets flowed into a box on the blog page. That meant people who checked the blog didn't have to brave the new world of Twitter.com to read the tweets. They read them and were hooked. This was not frivolous twittering about breakfast choices.

Amy Guth, a lawyer who has worked in Libby for 20 years, said the Twitter updates were so compelling that she finally had to cut them off cold turkey.

"I was addicted to it," Guth said. "It was fascinating and I'd just wait for the next update … I finally had to just get off it and pay attention to my job."

She said she forwarded the blog address to all the people she knew who felt strongly about W.R. Grace, one way or another.

"I think a great thing to come out of this trial and this project is that people have more interest in being educated about the Libby amphibole and what it is and how to protect themselves," she said, referring to the geologic structure at the heart of the asbestos trial and public health concern.

Judge Donald Molloy, the federal district judge who presided over the W.R. Grace trial, supported the project because he wanted as many people as possible to see and understand the judicial process. He also said he hoped the collaboration between journalism and law students would improve the accuracy of the coverage of the legal aspects of the trial.

Not all judges embrace transparency that way.

During the final week of the Grace trial a celebrity-studded bankruptcy trial focused on the exclusive Yellowstone Club for the super rich was held in the same courthouse. Jonathan Weber, the founder of Missoula-based news site NewWest.net, used Twitter to cover the opening day of the trial. He arrived at the courthouse the next day only to have the judge demand he stop Twittering or lose all computer privileges in the courtroom.

Weber continued to file updates during breaks but his experience contributed to a growing concern that judges are conflating the problem of tainted juries and witnesses with new media.

Twittering is no different than posting to a blog or filing a breaking news story with NewWest, Weber argued to no avail. It's still up to the jury and witnesses to avoid seeking out information about the trial.

The same might be said about journalists using new media as a reporting tool: The rules remain the same.

While I teach reporting with Twitter in my advanced skills class each fall, it comes in the context of the main focus of the class: Learning to report stories that are accurate, timely and newsworthy.

Next generation journalists are going to have to be good at learning new applications. But it is the old school values that will earn an audience, and people's, trust.

Nadia White teaches at the University of Montana School of journalism in  Missoula, Mont.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue

 

Sidebar

 

Getting started with live court coverage

  • Talk to the judge, clerk of court and courthouse staff very early in the process. Be upfront about your goals and access needs. Many of our requests were initially denied, but later approved.
     
  • Enter those talks with a sense of what you want, and a sense of what you absolutely need. We wanted laptops in the courtroom. If that had been denied, we would have needed a separate media room with a video feed. In the end, the court provided both.
     
  • Create and sustain a shared set of journalistic values for reporters by talking about the group's core values. This is especially important if coverage will be a citizen- or community-based collaboration.
     
  • If you're designing a single-purpose weblog or page for a trial, think about the features youwant to offer and begin the design process early. Form may drive function.
     
  • Develop background materials early. A rich trove of explainers, bios and backgrounders allow you to use internal links to enrich posts without making them longer.

 

 

NADIA WHITE