How the Scott Guy trial changed court reporting

DEBORAH MORRIS
Last updated 10:16 12/07/2012

Over the last 20 years I have covered trials like Scott Watson, Jules Mikus, The Beast of Blenheim, Bruce Howse along with things like huge serious fraud cases and high tension sentencings like Graeme Burton.

None have had the degree of fascination the public showed for the trial of Ewen Macdonald for the murder of his brother-in-law Scott Guy or the appetite for whatever we could give you. I had never seen anyone queue up to get into a court before. People stood in line eating lunch so as not to lose their place and school groups came to watch.

Every day 15 journalists (sometimes more), photographers and cameramen sat shoulder-to-shoulder to bring you every skerrick of information they could. Outside television cameras were set up permanently to report anything they could live.

For the first time we decided to give you a blow-by-blow account of the trial on dompost.co.nz  with multiple updates during each day's evidence - all published as soon as the 10-minute court delay requirement was up.

The pace was frantic. I could file to the digital newsroom from the courtroom via laptop so you were reading what I was hearing almost on the spot. Our photographers could also send straight from the courtroom allowing you to see everyone giving evidence.

With sometimes 10 witnesses in a day and hours of evidence it was intense work, especially with the need to be fast and accurate and to follow the rules of court not to use anything the jury has not heard.

Usually I am restricted on how much I can report by space available in the newspaper. There is far more evidence than we can ever use.  With no such limitations online we were able to bring you a full and almost unedited account of what was being said in the courtroom.

Traditionally court has been reported dryly, a just-the-facts approach.  But with new methods of getting the news out, the old ways of reporting have changed.  Now we use photographs, video, pictures of exhibits and witnesses and graphics to explain. It has changed the way we look at court coverage. We can give you a more complete look at a trial and how it develops hourly. It is likely to be something we will do again.

There was also the push to be first.  I could hear journalists fingers flying on their keyboards behind me. Sometimes it got media outlets into trouble, like the journalist who tweeted that the day would be finishing early before the jury had been told.

That level of coverage was unprecedented and caught many by surprise, even the lawyers in the trial. As Justice Simon France told the media after a warning to several media outlets about potentially going too far "Chill out.''

Add to that there was a need to be respectful, there was after all a grieving family involved and a man was dead.

Court is one of the mainstays of news to the media.  It is a place of great drama and often astonishing stories.  It shows the very worst - and sometimes - the very best of people.

In a country so small everyone knows someone who has heard a tidbit or rumour.

The Scott Guy trial was a good example of the soap opera like drama which can play out in a courtroom and how the media can bring it to you.

What did you think of our coverage of the Scott Guy trial? What about other media outlets? How would you like to read about major court cases? Leave a comment below with your feedback.

- The Dominion Post

12 comments
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max   #1   02:23 pm Jul 12 2012

I would say after the CNN/Fox news debacle of calling the Obamacare ruling wrong, its better to be correct than 'first'.

Charlene   #2   07:34 pm Jul 12 2012

The extensive coverage of the trial on your web page was an opportunity for many to learn more about trial procedures and our justice system. Perhaps in some way, it played a role in getting people 'hooked', hence the strong public response to the verdict.

Steve F   #3   10:54 pm Jul 12 2012

The principle of open justice is sacrosanct in our legal system and pre dates even the Magna Carta in English law. Court reporting forms an essential part of the principle and the expansion of media exposure made possible by technological advances are testing the principle in it’s delicate balancing act of a free press v’s a fair trial.

What we have seen in the Ewen McDonald trial is the emergence of the courtroom verdict being marketed as a brand. The extent to which this has been visible throughout this trial is, I believe, unprecedented in court reporting in New Zealand. Even within the strict confines of reporting directly from witness testimony the media have managed to evoke emotions amongst the public building the brand power. Snippets of evidence interspersed with suggestive and memorable images of witness close ups, you tube clips to whet the insatiable appetites all contribute to the public’s desire to buy or reject the brand. This new age of courtroom drama now places the defendant on trial with a presumption of guilt where in reality it is the evidence on trial and the defendant is in the dock under a presumption of innocence until the evidence proves otherwise. The front page story of this mornings Dompost “ The Court of Public Opinion” underscores my proposition and the power of the media to sell the brand. It is the result of trial by television.

With the limitless possibilities of on line publishing I would like to see the option of a detailed appraisal of the day’s testimony, that has an accuracy that can be afforded when published without the pressure to file on deadline. Even to the extent of the entire transcript if permissible. It would be one way which would go towards ensuring journali

Boris the Dog   #4   07:03 am Jul 13 2012

To be perfectly honest, who gives a s...!!! I glad its over. Now how about reporting something news worthy.

mike smith   #5   09:19 am Jul 13 2012

"None have had the degree of fascination the public showed for the trial of Ewen Macdonald" - got any evidence to support this claim?

So you had extra space in your paper? Is that it?

Andy   #6   11:00 am Jul 13 2012

There is nothing to be gained from allowing pictures and film to be published from court rooms.

samm   #7   12:48 pm Jul 13 2012

"Traditionally court has been reported dryly, a just-the-facts approach."

With good reason, and I wish it would stay that way rather than the sensationalised and often biased coverage the media (dompost included) presents as entertainment rather than information. SteveF #3 nailed it.

SH   #8   07:55 pm Jul 13 2012

Publishing the running reports every few minutes made for tiresome reading as they were in reverse time order, and you were reading things without the earlier evidence context, and often things were repeated.

Please publish in chronological order in future.

Brian M   #9   08:22 pm Jul 24 2012

No doubt there was a lot of local area interest but TV One pushed the "intense public interest" barrow too with daily repetitive "updates" and any little comment made in court was breathlessly reported while huge amounts of actual newsworthy events went unreported . One did the same with the English girl's murder as well. Luckily that trial ended before Ewan's started or there would've been panic in the newsroom. I gave up on tv news and read Stuff news on line.

Peter North   #10   01:35 pm Aug 08 2012

I thought it was bloody awful. A prime example of declining journalism standards and the Americanisation, Emotionalisation and Tabloidism of the news.


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