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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bloggers AND the Media or Bloggers AS the Media

Interesting editorial in the Calgary Herald today on the recent Court ordered bar of the public from a preliminary hearing.  Anonymous bloggers and citizen journalists and social media sites are said to be "rife with violations of the basic laws pertaining to the courts."  The editorial also notes the widespread violations of libel and slander laws on too many sites and I might add from too many Anonymous commenters.

I agree with the observations of the Calgary Herald editorial but then it gets all uppity and defensive about the superiority of the traditional media and professional journalism.  I also agree that there is a great benefit to society from professional journalism but frankly that has been eroding too.  Not the legal standards but the ethical standards are not always up to snuff.  There has been an erosion of analysis and depth in MSM too.  This is due to the money saving move for convergence of newspapers, radio and television coverage and ownership but also the competitive pressures to get it first before getting it right.

Part of this competitive pressure is brought on by the Bloggers too because they are breaking more and more news these days.  John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail said as much in a conference we were both speaking at.  He noted that in the 2008 Presidential campaign that every major story was broken by a Blogger not a reporter. Part of the problem is the reporters were ensconced on the candidate campaign buses and force fed recycled spin.  The news was happening elsewhere...in the communities where the Bloggers were.

Not doubt Bloggers and social media sites have to pick up their game by learning and respecting the legal requirements that relate to what they are writing about. By the same token MSM needs to elevate their coverage too and risk being really informative and start eschewing the infotainment we see all too often - especially on television and talk radio.

The public is ill served by MSM pushing superficial shallow news coverage or self-serving pap served up as authoritative analysis.   The public is also ill served by silly shocking strident and uninformed commentary by Bloggers out to pick a fight instead of informing a civil conversation.

I think the courts should insist that citizen journalists, who want to cover court proceedings, actually get proper accreditation specifically as Bloggers/Citizen Journalists.  Perhaps they need to pass a test to show knowledge of basic laws relating to the administration of justice and defamation.  They can't be anonymous either and they must obey the laws.

Rather than ban Bloggers the courts should make them accountable and liable for what they report.  I recently got access to a confidential court file as a Blogger when I did the report on the contempt finding against a Director of Children's Services in the Alberta government.  I asked and undertook not to disclose the child's name nor his caregivers in anything I wrote under penalty of Contempt of Court.  It was not easy and it happened mostly because I was a lawyer too and could give a professional undertaking to the courts. That is too high a standard and banning Bloggers is too low.

Seems to me there is a better way to serve the public interest here than banning Bloggers from the courts.  The larger problem to me is Tweeting from the Court room by anyone with a smartphone.  They can publish and mislead the public with instant and enormous reach with retweeting.  Many of those who would be tweeting in a Courtroom don't even know they are publishing.  It is almost guaranteed that we will see out of context and misinformed tweets coming out of courtrooms.  With with only a 140 characters per "story" it is pretty hard to be contextual never mind accurate.  Perhaps a ban on cellphones in courtrooms is something we have to look at.  I also think we need to allow live video feeds from the courts so the whole complex context of a case is available directly to the public.  I think that coverage can be supplemented with an informed or expert commentator to explain the procedure and the context of the proceedings for people.  Not reality television silliness but real world information and education for the public about the courts, the administration of justice and the law.

We need professional experienced journalists and responsible informed bloggers to a have access to the courts to so show us that justice is being done and explain how the public interest is being served by the processes and outcomes of various cases.  We don't need them to be the keepers of the truth and gatekeeper determinants of what is important or newsworthy.  We need a more informed and media literate public with a highly developed skill at critical thinking too.  This will all help to keep our democracy and its institutions focued on their real job; that of serving the public interest...not just looking for scoops and sensations.