The ethics of tweeting Breivik

There is a dilemma for journalists covering the trial of Anders Behring Breivik — the man who has admitted killing 77 people on 22 July in Norway last summer.

On the one hand, Breivik is gaining another bout of publicity for his crimes. On the other, the journalist’s role is to document a trial which inevitably has attracted significant public attention.

Although Twitter’s use in court is not new, this is a particularly high profile case which also presents a wealth of potential ethical issues for journalists using the microblogging tool to cover the trial.

Reporting Breivik’s trial: Banning “old'”broadcasting while allowing “new” broadcasting 

Some parts of the trial are being broadcast by Norway’s NRK television, although a number of key elements will not be shown.

Some of the haunting recordings of those who lost their lives are not being aired. Breivik’s own testimony yesterday was not televised. And the evidence given by witnesses will not be broadcast in the future either.

In yesterday’s press conference, the prosecution was asked how the media should report Breivik’s evidence.

“Q: Is it right for him to testify in court about his political agenda? How should the media report it?

A: It is important that he explain his views and many other people share those views. It also impacts on whether he is sane or insane. We don’t want his testimony to be directly broadcast because it needs to be digested after being put in context by media organisations.”

If the point of not allowing the evidence to be broadcast is to allow an opportunity to put everything in context, it leaves question marks over whether journalists should still be allowed to use Twitter from court.

In short, does it make sense to ban the cameras but not the tweeters?

Twitter updates: Stripping context?

A number of journalists have been using Twitter to provide updates from the trial.

Tweeting Breivik’s evidence inevitably strips away even more context from it. We lose the audio-visual context of a live broadcast and I would suggest that even the best live tweeters won’t be able to relay a verbatim account.

It could be argued that this can be allayed if a number of journalists are tweeting from court as they will provide different tweets on the trial.

In theory, they could also offer additional contextual tweets which might help audiences make sense of Breivik’s rants against Islam, multiculturalists, Marxists, and feminists; the evils of the Labour party; and his justification of mass murder as necessary for the salvation of Norway.

But I would hypothesise that because journalists are likely to tweet news lines they will probably tweet similar things. There also won’t be much time for fact-checking or the broader context while they are live-tweeting.

Paul Brannan, tweeting for Al Jazeera English, offered this caveat to his followers during the afternoon, for example:

Of course, tweets stripped of context can be reclothed by their incorporation into more detailed live blogs by media organisations and then articles and longer pieces.

Arguably, when taken as a whole, a stream of Twitter updates from a journalist at a trial may contain more context than a short broadcast report for radio or TV.

It is also not unreasonable to expect people to be aware of the limits of Twitter as a medium. (Is it?)

And if people want more context, they will obviously look elsewhere; but the same could be said of live television coverage.

The case for live tweeting over live TV

Twitter has an advantage, of course, over television in that discerning journalists can exercise their judgement to decide which aspects to cover in an attempt to avoid unnecessary harm.

It was notable earlier today that the Guardian’s reporter covering the trial, Helen Pidd, decided she did not want to provide updates during some parts of Breivik’s evidence:

Pidd explained that she would “put it in context in a story at lunchtime”, adding that it “seems irresponsible to just put it out on Twitter unadulterated.”

Twitter users who replied to Pidd’s comments were divided over whether she was making the right call.

When I asked her about this decision, Pidd said she does not think she has a duty to report everything Breivik says:

“In any news broadcast or story there is always an element of selection – whether for reasons of brevity, ethical reasons, concerns about those you are writing about [or other considerations].”

Pidd had also discussed tweeting the proceedings prior to the trial with colleagues at the Guardian.

They had agreed that it was “not morally wrong to live tweet the trial” but that they “needed to be careful”.

There are plenty of things to consider here, but perhaps that is the bottom line at the moment. At least until we have a better understanding of how audiences consume this sort of coverage.


Daniel Bennett recently completed his PhD at the War Studies Dept, KCL. His thesis considered the impact of blogging on the BBC’s coverage of war and terrorism. He writes the Reporting War blog for the Frontline Club.