Trial by social media

You would’ve had to have been living under a rock not to have heard about the case of Jill Meagher in the past two weeks.

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RIP Jill Meagher. Source: Mamamia.com.au

Jill Meagher, a 29-year-old ABC employee from Brunswick, Melbourne, was out drinking with work colleagues on a Friday night and into early Saturday morning.  On her way home CCTV footage shows that she was approached by a man in a blue hoodie. She failed to arrive home and a police homicide investigation was later set up.

A Facebook page was set up to help find the missing woman and accumulated more than 120, 000 likes. Ms Meagher’s body was found early Friday morning and a 41-year-old man has been arrested.

Facebook page set up to find Jill Meagher. Source: Facebook.

Related coverage on Facebook involvement in case: ABCSky NewsThe Australian.

Related articles on Jill Meagher: Herald Sun, Sydney Morning Herald

Police are now concerned that comments posted on the Facebook page could jeopardise the trial.

A name and shame Facebook page was also set up.

It’s not the first time this issue has arisen. In America jurors have been thrown out of courts for accessing information on social media sites and news sites through phones, tablets and computers.

We saw a very similar case, involving the issue of social media usage during a trial last year with the Daniel Morcombe case.

According to a Perth Now article:

“New media, including Twitter, Facebook and blogs, which broadcast to the entire world, means individuals now have a power once only held by major media organisations.”

“Because the man has been charged, any comments relating to his circumstances published prior to the conclusion of the case could lead the court to deem it impossible for him to receive a fair trial.

“The worst case scenario, according to legal expert at the Queensland University of Technology Peter Black, is that the judge grants a permanent stay of indictment because pre-trial publicity about the man was too prejudicial.”

In many cases the intent of the Facebook page is originally created to do good but many people don’t realise whilst they are venting their outrage or anger over particular actions they are also doing the case a lot of harm.

The Victorian Police asked Facebook to take down the page due to the fact that it could very well jeopardise the case involving Ms Meagher’s alleged killer, but Facebook refused.

Listen to the 3AW radio interview with the Victorian Chief Commissioner about social media usage during the trial.

In an article by the Age Kristen Boschma, the head of social media at communications firm Haystac said the level of social media engagement with the Meagher case was “unprecedented other than natural disasters in Australia”.

Although concerns are now growing over the harm social media could be doing to this trial it did play a huge part in the case.

The CCTV footage of Ms Meagher was viewed more than a million times on social media and assisted in people coming forward with further information that helped the police.

One of the reason’s it played such a major role in this case is because people like to feel a sense of connection and community, and want to feel connected to others who feel the same as them.

“Where things start to become incredible, I guess, is that Jill’s name had appeared in more than 35 million Twitter feeds in the early stages of this case and a lot of the sharing came from Australia and Ireland,” University of Canberra journalism academic Julie Posetti said.

As journalists we are taught to be very selective with what we write, whether it’s on traditional formats or online formats, to ensure we don’t publish material  that is defamatory, in contempt of court or sub judice.

Now that everyone on the internet could almost be called a journalist the same rules should apply and do apply. If members of the public want to embrace the role of a journalist when sharing breaking news or contributing in such cases as Jill Meagher’s, then they should be prepared to also take on the responsibilities that come with the territory. If they want to practice journalism they should follow the code:

MEAA Code of Ethics for journalists. Click photo for the full code.

Ms Posetti said education programs needed to be rolled out to assist with this issue.

While ‘professionally qualified journalists’ know (or should know, or know and don’t abide by the laws as we see with some shock jocks) it is the ‘citizen journalists’ who need to realise how greatly their actions can impact.

Maybe a new Twitter trend should be started now to remind or warn people not to talk about the case in a way that could cause a mis-trial.

Find here tips on what you can and can’t publish during a trial.

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