Blogging Making Publications Bans Impossible To Enforce?

Filed as News on January 31, 2007 2:14 am

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Up in Canada, a trial is going on in British Columbia that involves a pig farmer named Robert William Pickton.  He is currently suspected of killing almost fifty women, many of them prostitutes. Why is this important to blogging? It turns out that there is a publication ban on the trial. And while “official reporters” are easy to identify courtesy of their badges and credentials, non-professional reporters and bloggers are making their way to this very public trial, creating a quandry for the judge and judicial system in enforcing the publication ban.

The Ottawa Citizen reports that one website, Orato.com, has hired a number of said “non-official” reporters to create a number of reports right from the trial, with the hope that they might provide a kind of perspective that “real” reporters might not have. The vast majority of the victims were prostitutes, and many of these neo-reporters are, in fact, former sex-trade workers.

While blogging and other attempts at citizen journalism bring a fresh and, perhaps, intimate perspective on any particular bit of news, as the Pickton case shows, it creates serious issues around the possibility of a fair trial. As the Citizen reports:

VanKoll [an Orato reporter] has already come uncomfortably close to convicting Pickton in her writing, concluding her third dispatch with the implication that his attitude on a police video of his initial questioning leaves her too angry to continue. Who knows what else she might say? If she breaks the rules, Judge Williams can always kick her out of the courtroom, as he can any professional reporter. But what if one of the family members of one of Pickton’s alleged victims started ban-busting — on a website, or into a reporter’s microphone?

With the difficulties that the movie industry faces with less scrupulous individuals sneaking portable recording media into movie theatres, what hope does a small courtroom have in policing media bans in the YouTube age? Will judges who have an earnest desire for true “publication bans” require the entire gallery be cleared for the entire trial? It might be the only solution, as blogging, citizen journalism, and the constantly evolution of new media make secrecy a difficult proposition to enforce — even when its well intended.

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  1. By tish grier posted on February 1, 2007 at 10:53 am
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    I recently spoke with Paul Sullivan, the editor-in-chief of Orato.com for Online journalism Review (www.ojr.org)….Orato’s sent only two citizen correspondents (as Sullivan refers to them) who were accredited, to the trial–not the swarm that you are suggesting. It’s also very clear that Orato’s coverage of the trial is from the first-person perspective. Put side by side with the official dry news reports, it presents *a* perspective on the trial. I think most people who are reading Orato know what they are reading is a personal perspective, and, quite frankly, the perspective–esp. from the types of women who were vicitimized by Pickton–is fresh and enlightening. Further, the women know their responsibilities and to presume that they are going to do something untoward is really pretty low on your part, Tony. They know their positions are trusted positions, and they know that they’re NOT working for a Canadian version of the National Enquirerer.

    I don’t believe that either of these women are going to violate an important trust. The hissy fit in the Ottowa Citizen is just another hissy fit on the part of the formal press. They need to get over it and move on.

    Oh, and the form for accrediting reporters for the Pickton Trial is available online in a PDF. It’s not that complicated a form to fill out, really…and if there is a legit assignment given to a reporter by a legit publication, it’s up to the courts to decide to accredit them. The Orato citizen correspondents, like any other correspondent, could have been refused. They weren’t.

    Further, two American bloggers have been credentialled to cover the Scooter Libby trial. The Media Bloggers Association has worked to help get these two credentialled.

    On another point, there is nothing that says that citizens cannot become bona fide journalists. Reporters have risen from the ranks of citizens for centuries. Journalism is an art, not a form of rocket science where one needs an exacting education, formal exams, and a license to perform it. What one truly needs is a decent command of language and a good moral compass. And not all good journalism is traditional. How about Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo journalism” and the writing of Tom Wolfe?