Friday, April 15, 2011

Is live-tweeting from a trial ethical?

Since last week, the Kingston Freeman has been covering a murder trial that is taking place in Kingston, New York. They have been live-tweeting from the trial itself, allowing the public to essentially "be at the hearing" without physically being there. It has been a hit with many community members, yet even some of our own reporters here are questioning the ethics of live-tweeting from a trial. Here is some of the research I've done to try to figure this our myself.

Potter Box
First I decided to put together a Potter Box,to help determine if this is ethical. I listed the Facts, Values, Principles,and Loyalties of the situation and the company.

Based on the Potter Box, I don’t see an ethical problem with tweeting a murder case from inside a courtroom. Based on the facts given, tweeting these details does not go against the values or loyalties of the newspaper. The only principle, which came from the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, that may be up in the air would be “Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed”. As far as I am concerned, the trial had become more of a public event than a private trial. It also involved information on gang activity in surrounding areas, which is something I believe the public has a right to know about, especially if it is going on right around them.

Category of News
We can also look at the ethics of this situation by asking ourselves about the category of news.

Does the public have a right to know?
My answer to this question is absolutely. Public records and public hearings are mandated by the state as a right to know. The murder trial going on is a public trial and although there are only 40 seats in the court house, whoever would like to attend, has the right to. Therefore, I believe the public has a right to know, no matter how to information is delivered.

Does the public have a need to know?
According to Tim McGuire, professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, “The need to know covers information that is necessary to inform citizen readers of things important to society, business and government.” Therefore I believe that in this case, the public has a need to know about the trial because it is important to society, specifically the city they live in because it has to do with gangs and violence, which can very well affect them.

The question that I am struggling with is the rate of speed that the public needs to know. And although according to this method of measuring ethics, speed is not a part of the equation, it is something I can’t help but ask myself. I am not so sure that the public needs to know all details, the second it becomes available, especially since a lot of times there is a mistake within the first round of information.

Allowing the public to see this process of gaining information by delivering minute by minute tweets makes them in a sense involved in the process of gathering information. I am not so sure if I feel as though that brings journalism down by allowing more people to be involved in the process, or if it is a positive thing because it helps correct mistakes more quickly.

Does the public want to know?
I would think that a case like this, where there is a danger to the community, that people would want to know. The other side of people’s “want to know” is because it is new information and people want something to talk about.

Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
The Society of Professional Journalists(SPJ) has a Code of Ethics that many journalists have voluntarily stuck by for years.

Ethics Code

If you go through each and every section. The only clause I see possibly being a problem to the question of whether or not live-tweeting a trial is ethical is under the “Minimize Harm” section: “Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.” And I think that a reporter who has been trained on ethics and has been in the journalism field for long enough has the ability to keep this balance.

The last time the SPJ’s Code of Ethics was updated was in 1996. FIFTEEN YEARS AGO. A lot has changes in those fifteen years. I think that it is imperative for the SPJ to take a look at their Code of Ethics and add an entire new section to it that is devoted to technology, the online world, and where this has taken us in terms of ethics.

Although I am a bit skeptical of how ethical tweeting a trial is, for now I would say that yes it is ethical because it is public information and people do have a right to know. The reason I am skeptical is because of the fact that live-tweeting brings in many other people into the information-gathering process of journalism, which I am not so sure is a good thing. Essentially, the reporter is publishing his/her notes to the public. All of the tweets, are what he or she is writing down and going to use to write a story later on. It almost seems backwards.

The other thing I am thinking about is the fact that people who are going to be put on trial but have no yet, are getting an insight to details of a trial more quickly than ever before. It may be giving an upper hand to people when there should not be one.

So, I guess I am still a little on the fence as to whether or not it is ethical to be live-tweeting from a trial, but based on the Potter Box, Code of Ethics, and Categories of News, I am leaning towards yes, it is ethical to do this…for now, anyway.

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