Courtroom-tweeting journalists are not stenographers, at some critics say. Rather, they are thoughtful, applying journalistic standards to what they tweet and how they craft each 140-character publication. But despite this, there is little consistency in courts as to when tweeting is permissible.

Courtroom-tweeting journalists are not stenographers, at some critics say. Rather, they are thoughtful, applying journalistic standards to what they tweet and how they craft each 140-character publication. But despite this, there is little consistency in courts as to when tweeting is permissible.

This is the latest in research from Carleton University’s Susan Harada and Mary McGuire, who have been following courtroom tweeting since the fall of 2010. (disclosure: McGuire is also a J-Source section editor)

McGuire and Harada’s research began with the unprecedented Russell Williams trial: the first trial in Canada that journalists were allowed to live-tweet. It was a unique case, as Toronto Star public editor Kathy English said in a recent column: “As Parley and Bert Bruser, the Star’s lawyer, reminded me however, because that was not a trial to determine Williams’ guilt or innocence, there was less at stake. Misguided, inaccurate tweets could not affect the outcome of the proceedings.”

As McGuire and Harada say in an article in Carleton Now, “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.”

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Journalists’ ability to live-tweet high-profile cases since the Williams trial has been inconsistent due to a lack of guidelines available to judges. Courtroom tweeting at the Shafia trial was banned (though that did not stop journalists from simply leaving the courtroom to publish 140-character updates. And when the judge locked the courtroom doors to prevent journalists from doing even that during sentencing, McGuire and Harada found evidence that the verdict still ended up on Twitter before the doors opened.) At the Michael Rafferty trial, there is no tweeting from the courtroom, but an overflow room with a video feed has been set up that reporters are free to tweet from.

“It’s time for Canadian courts to offer some guidance to judges,” conclude McGuire and Harada, referencing Chief Justice Beverly McLachlan’s sentiment as given in a talk at Carleton University earlier this year. 

Besides the benefits that engagement with readers brings for journalists, McGuire and Harada found that Twitter satisfied readers/followers’ “appetite for updates between newscasts." As well, Twitter was a tool that “leveled the playing field for print and broadcast reporters,” as “traditionally, broadcast reporters could file their news well before print reporters could publish.”