Journalism in the Courtroom: Ethics and the Law


The CCPIO's New Media Report on the use of new media in the courtrooms.


Journalism in the Courtroom: Ethics and the Law

If you’ve ever taken Professor Hodson’s Communication Law class, you understand his semi-Socratic method of teaching.  By posing some of his well- known, sometimes-uncomfortable, always-hilarious hypothetical situations, Hodson taught a room of SPJ attendees about how “new media” can flip the judicial system on its head. SPJ invited Hodson and Chris Davey, the director of public information for the Supreme Court of Ohio, to explain.

There are three main tensions between new media and the court system. First, new media is communicative and conversational; the courts typically talk and the public must listen. Second, new media allows people to interact on a personal level, even online; the business of the courtroom is more separate and private. Finally, new media thrives on multimedia use while the court system is text-based.

These disputes can’t be ignored. According to the CCPIO’s recent report on new media use in the courtrooms, 98 percent of survey participants, all of whom hold some type of legal occupation, see this as an important topic requiring further attention. In fact, the percentages of judges who use social networking sites (Facebook, LinkedIn, and any others that feature a profile page) and other adults who use the sites are roughly equal — 40 percent.

These statistics, as well as facts about reporters’ rights in the courtroom, revealed a complex relationship between the long-standing judicial system and the ever-changing wave of new media. The CCPIO report has helped to pave the road to agreement, but courts have only just begun the journey.

So, less reading, more thinking. The best way to understand this stuff is actively. Here’s the hypotheticals…how would YOU decide?

1) You are a reporter, covering a trial in a federal court, and you are tweeting details about the case on your iPhone. The bailiff notices and tells the judge, who then pauses the case, ushers out the jury, and calls you up to the bench to tell you to stop. If you refuse, the judge will hold you in contempt and throw you in jail. As you return to your seat, slightly embarrassed, you have to decide what to do. Do you continue to tweet — this is important, you’re a reporter, the public has a right to know? Or do you stop — no way, you’re not going to jail, you’re no help to the public from there? Or do you do have other options?

Things to keep in mind: In federal courts, any type of broadcasting is ILLEGAL. No photos, audio, video, or anything that happens in “real time” (these are all terms the courts use to define “broadcast”).


Professor Hodson explaining one of the hypothetical situations.



2) You are a juror, sitting in on a controversial criminal case, and the judge orders the entire jury to refrain from ANY new media use (this includes Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, online news, blogs, everything), regardless of content, in the interest of a fair and unbiased case. Is this fair to you? Why or why not?

Things to keep in mind: Jurors are banned from any discussion of the case for the duration of the case. They cannot talk about it at all with anyone, including spouses, friends and family. In addition, they cannot read the news or hear any other accounts of the case. The information they receive during the trial should be the only information they use to make a decision. From a structural standpoint, also consider the enforceability of this judge’s rule.

3) You are a reporter for the Athens Daily Times, covering a trial, sitting in your seat innocently taking notes and microblogging (or Tweeting) and you notice someone who you believe is taking photos of a juror with his or her iPhone and immediately posting them on YouTube. Do you tell the judge? Let’s assume you do, for the sake of discussion. In response, the judge bans all cell phones in the courtroom and tells the bailiff to collect them all and return them to owners when they leave. This new rule (which, let’s be honest, you caused) prohibits you from Tweeting and doing your job. Looking back, would you still have told the judge? Why or why not? And if so, should the rule impact you, even though you are a journalist using your cell phone for permitted purposes?

Things to keep in mind: It is always illegal, regardless of the type of court, to take photos of a juror (the broadcast rule from hypothetical #1 only applies to federal courts, not to this hypothetical). This hypothetical can inspire an important and complex (and fascinating) debate about the differences between journalists working for a publication and other audience members in a courtroom. Should you have more rights than an “average Joe” citizen in the audience? Why or why not? And how does your opinion speak to the role of “citizen journalism” in society?

We invite you to continue the discussion on our blog through comments, but please keep it friendly!

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