iPad for journalists – Where to draw the line?

It’s not just the video camera on the Apple iPad 2 that makes it essential for a ‘multimedia journalist’.

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It’s probably not legal to have three little pigs in court – certainly not as witnesses. But what is more contentious is whether or not one should be permitted to sketch them. The Guardian’s Open Journalism advert featuring the well-known animals shows a court artist’s stylus sketching the snouts of the accused on an iPad, before the judge delivers her sentence.

But the practice of drawing a portrait or sketch in court has been illegal since 1925, a year after pictures such as those from the murder trial of Patrick Mahon – a killer blessed with matinee-idol looks – had been circulating in newspapers and competing for thrills with the advent of cinema.

As the iPad becomes the journalists’ preferred tool to tweet from court, could it also become the new sketchpad? Currently, a courtroom artist producing an eyewitness image of a British trial draws from memory, outside the courtroom, before pinning the work up on a wall to have it filmed. But the proliferation of iPads in British courtrooms begs the question of why they can’t be used to sketch, or even record sound.

This could be why Priscilla Coleman, who has illustrated some of the most important trials of the century, including Rose West, Harold Shipman and the Hutton Inquiry, is learning to use her iPad ‘à la Hockney’, according to her representative Matthew Buxton. It would also allow Coleman’s sketches to be reproduced, shared with newsrooms and licensed instantly, and could potentially lead to the age of watching live brushstrokes alongside Twitter feeds of trials.

The iPad has already been touted as the ultimate tool for journalists, replacing the video camera, photo-lab, edit suite, voice recorder and notepad while also allowing users to upload from almost anywhere as the consumption of news continues to grow in the direction of digital. Murdoch told the Leveson inquiry in May that he was “very confident” that there will be “billions of tablets in the world” in less than five years. Meanwhile his reporters are beginning to do much of their multimedia reporting using devices such as the iPhone 4 or even the classic iPod.

Of course, journalists take notes as a memory-aid, as do court artists. The moment of reflection, however brief, is crucial to writing a story. Tweets from court are bound by law to be accurate and fair, but the lack of time to reflect could also explain their machine-like style.

Whatever the difficulties of regulating online news, hordes of budding artists filling up courtrooms and instantly publishing their work online could be problematic for witnesses and the judicial process. The motivation for the 1925 prohibition could resurface in a uniquely modern yet anachronistic way, where digital sketches, more visceral than 140-character tweets, go viral.

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