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Twitter in court: The Ethical Dilemma

Perhaps the decision to allow journalists to “tweet” from court was inevitable – social networking sites are becoming more and more prevalent in the way people consume news – but the implications of the historic decision, taken in December by district judge Howard Riddle, to adopt Twitter as a courtroom tool shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Traditionally, electronic recording equipment hasn’t been allowed in British courtrooms. It’s meant the coverage of British court cases has developed in a very different way to that in the US where the use of TV cameras in courtrooms has allowed many a case to turn into a media circus.

Video cameras are still strictly prohibited in all British courtrooms but social media commentators have suggested the leniency towards the use of mobile equipment could pave the way for the long-standing ban to be removed.

There are also issues related to the nature of Twitter’s posts. Can journalists really portray an accurate and balanced assessment of a court’s proceedings in posts of less than 140 characters?

What’s more, if Twitter proves a popular medium for consumers to be updated on court cases, how will the market for a full newspaper report of court cases – drafted from a reporter’s shorthand notes – be affected? Is this another nail in the coffin for the traditional newspaper?

The new ruling states that using “virtually silent” electronic gadgets to fire off tweets and other text messages is permissible but only journalists are allowed to use the gadgets and they must apply in advance for the permission to do so. It is also not a hard and fast rule – it remains at the judge’s discretion to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether the use of Twitter is appropriate.

Of course, the landmark decision is recognising the prevalence of social networks – and the internet – in today’s society but how the change affects the treatment of cases within Britain’s legal system should be watched with caution.

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