Whilst the legislative, executive and judiciary are estates that are pillars of our democratic society, they must be mediated by an external body – the fourth estate. As members of the fourth estate, journalists serve to facilitate transparency amongst authoritative figures and ensure accountability. In observing proceedings at the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court, I was able to assume the position of a fourth estate member and had to contend with the responsibilities and challenges that this entails. Though I had obligations to provide newsworthy material, I had to consider the legal and ethical implications that pursuing a case involves. Thus I discovered that when observing potentially publishable instances, a journalist must evaluate all aspects of a story thoroughly to guarantee the trio of journalistic fundamentals – fairness, balance and accuracy. Whilst reportage is a necessity in any progressive society, there can be no compromise for these three values.
I spent a full day at the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court on the 13th October and decided to focus on two cases. The first was that of Robert Arnott, who was found guilty of two counts of theft in the CBD. The second was that of John Eddington, who was charged with assault and denied bail after an incident in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs. Due to the closeness of Arnott’s robberies to the CBD, I wrote the report covering his verdict with the intention for it to be published in either The Herald Sun or The Age as the proximity of the crimes would make the article newsworthy. I aimed to have Eddington’s incident printed in the same publication, but for different reasons. I believed that the severity of the allegations made against Eddington warranted the investigation being sent to the major newspapers for coverage. The two cases were designed to be and would be most effectively published on the same day as the recency value would provide additional newsworthiness.
Selecting angles for the stories required me to assess the background of the two perpetrators and all aspects of the crimes. The fact that Arnott committed two similar crimes despite being caught after the first incident appealing to me as newsworthy and thus I decided to pursue this angle. Eddington’s case was much more sensitive as he had yet to be convicted and so I had to exercise caution with revealing details presented in court. I found that despite having to abstain from including some of the more attention grabbing intricacies such as the fact that Eddington is alleged to have engaged in a sinister conversation with the victim outlining how he was going to kill her and that he’d begun to print these messages on the wall, that the case was impactful enough to be newsworthy. The angle I adopted for the case was thus to focus on the dark nature of the allegations.
My main legal implication in covering Arnott’s conviction was defamation. The two thefts, in that he stole $100 from a bill plate and later stole a wallet and iPhone opportunistically were both instances of quite petty, low character acts. However, in detailing the two cases, I had to ensure that I did not present an opinionated perspective or unnecessarily attack Arnott’s integrity. Arnott was revealed in court to have been homeless for an extended period of time and likely committed the crimes out of desperation, however to discuss these details would be to stray from my legal obligations.
My main ethical implication in covering Arnott’s case was his history of mental illness. It was revealed in court that he has been receiving medication to deal with his behavioural problems stemming from the aftermath of a nasty divorce and the loss of custody of his children. Though I felt it necessary to touch on the fact that Arnott was battling mental illness, I endeavoured to do so in a way that was ethically conscious. I avoided using mental illness as justification for his crimes and did not discuss the origins of the illness, rather I reported on how it outlined by his defence as “a factor” rather than “a key or central” factor. In electing to word it in this matter and excluding information about Arnott’s personal life, I felt I found the balance between detailing relevant information and protecting Arnott and readers from harm or offence.
My main legal implications in covering Eddington’s alleged assault stemmed from his prior misdemeanours and the fact that he had yet to be convicted. Eddington was on bail from a previous case, a road rage incident 4 months before his alleged assault. This was newsworthy information as it goes some way to explaining Eddington’s underlying anger issues, however, I could not mention this as this would disrupt my obligation to present a balanced report and would encourage accusations against myself of invoking “trial by media”. Furthermore, as Eddington had yet to be convicted, I could not name or identify him beyond referring to his gender and suburb.
My main ethical implications from this case were protecting the victim and the defendant’s Aunt, who appeared in court to support Eddington. The informant presenting at the hearing detailed the utter shock and horror the victim was enduring and it was evident that she was battling mental and emotional distress due to the harsh nature of the incident. Though I had a responsibility to convey the information presented in court, I had to strike a balance between news value and endeavouring to do no harm. I attempted to avoid overly personal details such as the exact words spoken by both parties, the vocalised threats made to the victim and the writing on the walls. In excluding these aspects of the crime I felt I sufficiently shielded the victim by not publicising in thoroughness the ordeal she suffered through. In addition, though Eddington’s Aunt appeared sincere in her offering of support, I decided to refrain from mentioning her words in the story as personalising her offer in that depth could potentially evoke backlash in the community. Though it is natural to support family irrespective of their wrongdoing, to excessively explain her reasoning may inadvertently align her too closely with the defendant and his actions. By referring to her offer briefly without quotation I felt I protected the Aunt sufficiently.
To pursue these stories further I would seek out the police departments who made the arrests in the two cases to access more detailed reports on the two individuals and their incidents. Furthermore, I would attempt to speak to the magistrate and defence lawyer, which would enable me to present both sides of the legislative deliberation process. Comment from the two individuals embroiled in the crime may be difficult to attain but would enable me to truly adhere to the values of fairness, balance and accuracy and would open the door for follow up stories.