Twitter in the Court

By Mary McGuire and Susan Harada

Whether reporters should be tweeting from courtrooms is not something the creators of Twitter could have imagined would be debated in Canadian journalistic and legal circles when they gave birth to their new social network six years ago; nevertheless, Twitter is now widely used by court reporters to provide play-by-play coverage from high-profile trials.

The latest instance involves Michael Rafferty, currently on trial in London, Ont., for the murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford in 2009. The case has added fuel to the already raging debate about whether, and how, Twitter should be used in court.

We began studying the considerable legal and journalistic challenges that result from the use of Twitter in court in the fall of 2010 with the sentencing hearing of then-Col. Russell Williams for the brutal slaying of two women, the sexual assault of two others, and a string of fetish break-ins. The Williams hearing was the first court proceeding to be live-tweeted by all the major Canadian news organizations. It was also one of the first in which news organizations worked together through lawyers to negotiate an agreement with the court that allowed for reporters with accredited news organizations to use electronic devices to send live updates from inside the courtroom as the hearing was underway.

The experience in that case and the lessons learned by both sides has, in many ways, influenced journalists and judges in the cases which followed and made it clear to us that it’s time for some best practices on both sides.

For the journalists, it was clear that Twitter was a valuable tool and a new form of storytelling. Contrary to critics who suggest reporting via Twitter is mere stenography, we found many examples from the Williams hearing of reporters applying journalistic standards to what they chose to tweet, what they chose to leave out and to how they crafted their nuggets of information. Twitter allowed them to satisfy readers/followers with an appetite for updates between newscasts. It also leveled the playing field for print and broadcast reporters; traditionally, broadcast reporters could file their news well before print reporters could publish. We also found that Twitter allowed reporters to engage with readers and provide context, answer questions, and even connect with them later for follow up stories. Given the benefits, it’s clear reporters will want to continue to use Twitter even if they have to step outside the courtroom to sent their tweets.

The challenge for them, however, is that Twitter turns traditional journalistic practices on their head. There is no editor reviewing the copy before it is published; when a reporter hits Send, anyone online can read it. It places a huge responsibility on the reporter’s shoulders, and the burden is particularly heavy when there is disturbing testimony, as in the Williams case or the Rafferty trial. It takes an experienced reporter with clear guidelines from editors to do it well.

For the judiciary, the Williams case led to a call for a review of the use of Twitter in courts and guidelines for judges. In the absence of guidelines, judges have responded inconsistently to subsequent requests from journalists to tweet from their courtrooms. Some banned tweeting from the main courtroom, but allowed it from an overflow courtroom set up with either a video feed, or in one case we found, just an audio feed, making it difficult for reporters to provide the full context of the court proceedings. Others tried to ban it entirely, as in the Shafia murder trial in Kingston earlier this year, which led to reporters constantly leaving their seats to tweet outside the courtroom. And, when the judge in that case locked the doors when the verdict came down to prevent them from doing even that, we found evidence that the verdict still ended up on Twitter before the courtroom doors opened.

It’s time for Canadian courts to offer some guidance to judges. When the Chief Justice of Canada’s Supreme Court spoke at Carleton last month, she did not address the issue of courtroom tweeting directly. But she spoke with passion about the importance of the open court principle, and the crucial role the media plays in interpreting what goes on in our courts for the public.

“Newspapers, radio and television, despite their importance, are now old technology. Many people today — the young and even the not-so-young — use social media as their main sources of information. Without exaggeration, we are witnessing a profound cultural shift in how people communicate and how information is packaged, disseminated and consumed …

As the media invent and re-invent themselves, so must judicial understanding evolve of how we relate to the media. We must look forward; we dare not hang back. This is our only choice, for what is at stake is nothing less than the rule of law.”

It’s easy to agree with her.

 

Susan Harada and Mary McGuire are associate professors in Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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