Cape Town -
The Oscar Pistorius trial has dramatically changed the relationship between the public, the media, and the courtroom. New digital platforms have given individuals unprecedented access to the action, forever shifting the power dynamic between the three groups.
No longer must citizens sit and passively consume news. Televised coverage has placed the public directly inside the courtroom. The pluralisation of access has ignited international conversations across Facebook, Twitter, and other interactive platforms.
Traditionally, these types of conversations have only existed within the media. They were the ones with access to the information, so they were the ones discussing the information.
But between the televised coverage and the live tweeting of the Pistorius trial, the entire world is able to engage in these conversations.
This has created a demand for real-time coverage and commentary, forcing the industry to adapt. The courts have no real control over the spread of information and the journalists can no longer simply provide facts.
The media have spent years avoiding crossing the line in over-editorialising judicial proceedings. The sub judice rule has long restricted commentary on court cases for fear of influencing the legal process. Editorialising was seen as an attempt to have a “trial by newspaper”.
The 2007 Midi Television judgment expanded the ability of the press to comment, so long as there is no real risk of influencing court proceedings. The Pistorius trial is among the first times coverage has dramatically pushed the envelope in editorial coverage, in part due to the social media.
“What you get from that social media dimension is live and in the moment,” said Harry Dugmore, former MTN chair of Media and Mobile Communications at Rhodes University. “Now you’re getting that analysis on the fly. It’s really powerful; it’s analysis in real time.”
So powerful that presiding Judge Thokozile Masipa eventually reversed her intended ban on the live tweeting of the evidence provided by a pathologist. The ruling was intended to protect the dignity of Reeva Steenkamp.
But the reality is that even if live tweeting is banned, the information will still be out there almost instantaneously. As soon as the testimony ends, reporters will flock to their computers and smart phones and rapidly spread the details.
“I do think that was a pre-digital decision,” said Dugmore of the Twitter ban. “They’re not really understanding how media works in a modern age.”
Part of understanding the digital age is acknowledging that the face of court reporting has changed. The Pistorius case has received more media coverage than any other case in South African history. Demand for coverage is coming from all around the world and information is no longer restricted to the people sitting in the courtroom.
“Every piece of evidence is scrutinised and usually available on Twitter and the Web within hours,” said City Press reporter Charl du Plessis in an e-mail to the Weekend Argus. “This case has been the first time that large numbers of lawyers have come out to publicly comment on an ongoing case.”
The trepidation normally present when commenting on on-going court cases is slowly disintegrating. But concerns still linger from the sub judice rule regarding the commentary taking over the role of the judge.
Even if individuals have heard the facts of the case, most do not fully understand the intricacies of the judicial process itself. It is a slippery slope for this type of coverage and “insights” from the international peanut gallery can quickly turn a very serious case into a form of entertainment.
“Soap opera treatment of #OscarPistorius trial fine example to UK of why we shouldn’t take any further steps towards televised courts,” tweeted James Chapman of the Daily Mail in Britain.
But media coverage might prove to be more than just an excuse to satiate the world’s curiosity and voyeurism. The trial has opened the judicial system to the public in an unprecedented way.
Though trials are open and, hypothetically, any citizen can walk into any courtroom, the first televised South African trial has allowed citizens anywhere in the country to witness the judicial process.
“The wider public now, for the first time, has moved into the courtroom and is watching a procedure which they do not, generally, have knowledge or experience of,” said Kobus van Rooyen, a former law professor.
The Pistorius trial has provided more than fodder for online commentators to bicker over. It has removed some of the mystery that shrouds the courts for the average citizen.
Individuals can simply scan Twitter and read direct quotes from trial proceedings, or turn on the live TV feed and watch it as it happens.
This access has empowered the public. New media is providing platforms for journalists and citizens alike to discuss and debate issues as they occur.
“What it all boils down to is literally taking trial by media, the old concept, to trial by world,” said marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk.
“This actually puts tremendous responsibility on the judges and the assessors to actually ignore all this.”
The relationship between the courts and new media will continue to evolve as the country progresses from the Pistorius trial to the upcoming Shrien Dewani murder trial in Cape Town.
The trial by “world scenario” may be unavoidable, but legal experts are quick to emphasise that public statements will never take over the role of the court reaching the final verdict.