Julian Assange case raises questions about whether court reporting via Twitter can be fair

The Guardian
David Banks reports that the live tweeting from Julian Assange’s court hearing in London on Wednesday set a small precedent for British courts, but raised some larger questions of journalism ethics.

The judge’s decision to allow tweeting was in a lower court, so it is not expected to set a major precedent country-wide. In fact tweeting was later barred from a follow-up hearing on Thursday.

But Banks wonders if the 140-character length of a tweet creates new challenges for journalists:

“Court reporters have defenses against charges of contempt of court and an action for libel so long as their reports are fair and accurate. Can they fairly sum up what might be complex legal points in 140 characters? The use of links, or Tweetlonger, might address this. But there is a danger of cherry-picking the juiciest moments when tweeting court and possibly producing a report which is not a fair account of proceedings.”

In the U.S., there has been some blogging and tweeting from state and federal courtrooms. The Wichita Eagle’s Ron Sylvester has been tweeting from courtrooms since 2008 and told me by e-mail that he does not consider his tweeting to be any different than traditional story coverage:

“My tweets are in essence a series of live blog posts. Readers can follow the trials on Twitter, or we put the feed on our website, Kansas.com, and people can follow it there. I have been in trials where I file hundreds of tweets a day at 140 characters each. People can read the tweets live, or they can go back at the end of the day and read them as they would a story.”

Sylvester said that the question of “cherry-picking” is a fair one, but Twitter makes that danger no more or less likely. Journalism, via any medium, is filtering:

“It’s up to the professional journalist to make sure they report fairly and accurately. In this time of changing media, Twitter and live-blogging, I think [the] role of a professional journalist becomes even more valid and important.”

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