Courts need bridge between media, judges

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First Amendment Center

As a young reporter, I had the good fortune to cover circuit court judges who didn’t mind helping a rookie.

I was a lawyer and a reporter, but there were times when my law school education came up a little short. I found judges in the 20th Judicial Circuit of Florida who were willing to provide background and context so that I could write a story as accurately as possible.

That was exactly the kind of dynamic we hoped for when the First Amendment Center convened the first Justice and Journalism conference in Washington, D.C., in 1999.

We believed that the public would be well-served if judges and journalists better understood each other’s professional goals and ethical obligations and could establish some common ground.

Those conferences have been held every year since, and we’ve seen extraordinary progress.

Increasingly, judges have recognized that the best way to build public support for the judicial system is to demonstrate that the system works.

Journalism that reflects both the complexity and the care taken in the trying of cases tends to reinforce public respect for America’s judges.

This is important for a number of reasons.

Increasingly, judges are targeted as “activists” and painted as rendering decisions for reasons of politics and not justice. Further, judges who take steep pay cuts from their jobs at law firms still look very well paid to the public and rarely get the compensation due them.

Over time, courts across America have begun to open their doors to television cameras, giving the public a better understanding of what actually goes on.

In addition, the conversations between judges and journalists have led to a more constructive environment and better reporting.

Recently, at our latest Justice and Journalism conference, it was clear just how much had changed in 13 years.

In 1999, we were urging judges to encourage coverage of their courts. Today, judges are left wondering, “Where have all the reporters gone?”

As news organizations have faced a dramatic decline in resources, they have had to make tough choices.

Covering trials requires an investment of many hours and there’s no guarantee that the day’s proceedings will generate news. Juries can be out for an hour or for weeks.

Unlike covering a sporting event, you never know when the 9th inning is.

In addition, limits on use of media in the courtroom mean that so many of the new techniques being used by journalists, including tweeting and posting to social media, are largely off limits.

Judges want control over their courtrooms, and that typically includes banning the electronic devices that communicate to the world beyond.

This year’s Justice and Journalism conference focused on how journalism schools can provide more training in covering courts, but also took a hard look at the overall reduction in news coverage.

There are no easy answers.

In a competitive media environment, sensational and high-visibility criminal cases will get all the attention, but they’re hardly representative of the daily caseload in America’s communities.

The conversations between judges and journalists will continue.

The press serves as a valuable watchdog on the legislative, executive and judicial branches, and judges protect the rights of all Americans, including the right to a free press. On many levels, judges and journalists need each other, and a steady flow of information is very much in the public good.

Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center. Previously, Paulson served as editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today and USATODAY.com.