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COMMENT: We need to respect the art of court reporting

Monday, 6th May, 2019 7:59am

Story by Tony McCullagh
COMMENT: We need to respect the art of court reporting

The Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin

COMMENT: We need to respect the art of court reporting

The Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin

BACK in the 1980s, when I was a wannabe reporter, I did a week’s work experience in the Four Courts with the Irish Press. 

Each day, I would shadow the paper’s court reporter, Paul Muldowney, watching him take copious notes in shorthand as we sat together in the press gallery.

I found it next to impossible to follow what was going on, as legal eagles took to their feet and spewed out what was incoherent gobbledygook to my young ears. When the morning’s proceedings had finished, we’d go back to a small office in the vast belly of the Four Courts where the veteran reporter would bang out his story on a typewriter before phoning it in to a copytaker in his newspaper.

When I read his report, I was struck by the level of skill required to work as a court reporter. How was it possible for him to write such an accessible and concise account of the proceedings we had just sat through? How had he heard things that I hadn’t? That week, I learned that an understanding of law and the mechanisms of a court case was required for the job. But even more important was the need for accuracy, balance and fairness. As a journalist, there is nothing more daunting than getting it wrong when covering a court case.  

An error in a court report has the potential to land a media organisation in serious trouble or could even collapse a trial. Courts are not slow to threaten newspapers with contempt proceedings if it’s believed a case could be jeopardised by inaccurate coverage.

To this day, I still have huge admiration for court reporters and their ability to break down often complex cases into compelling, readable articles. RTÉ reporters such as Vivienne Traynor and Orla O’Donnell are masters of their craft when covering court cases for television and radio. Newstalk’s court correspondent, Frank Greaney, is also a standout broadcaster and his coverage of both the Belfast rape trial and recent Tipperary murder case was exceptional. In my view, he is one of Ireland’s most accomplished journalists and a rising media star to watch.

Given the amount of professional skill and care involved in writing a court report, it is highly concerning that many stories are now debased when they appear on social media. In recent years, I have been genuinely shocked at the legally dubious (to put it mildly) and vulgar nature of some of the comments posted under court reports that appear on my Facebook newsfeed.

It’s for this reason that we don’t post court reports on Dublin People’s social media platforms. Until such a time that robust legislation or proper safeguards are in place to deal with the problem of unregulated comments on social media, there is a compelling argument to be made for restricting the publication of court reports to print or broadcast formats.

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