Bench Bar Press Committee
Press and courts working together benefits all
by William L. Downing
Not to be outdone longtime Associated Press correspondent Linda Deutsch and ABC newsman Tim O'Brien dispatched their views bemoaning the laziness and pandering to sensationalism that too often mar the media's reporting of court proceedings.
With that off their chests, these four and about seventy-five other leading judges and journalists sat down together in Reno, Nevada to look constructively toward a common future. The occasion was the inaugural conference of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for the Courts and Media.
It wasn't chance that brought us all to Reno. The University of Nevada, Reno is the home of the National Judicial College and also the Reynolds School of Journalism which are collaborating on this bold new project.
The subtitle of the conference - "Conflict and Cooperation" - well describes what occurred over the two day event. The conflicts between courts and media, while not ignored, were distilled down in a way that pointed clearly toward a cooperative approach that would not compromise the mission of either group.
Former Judge Kenneth Starr, in his opening address, noted a public cynicism he felt was being fueled by the media. With this phenomenon eroding public trust and confidence in the courts, he urged judges and reporters to work to offset it. Several reporters with courthouse beats then described seeing judges who seemed to feel the business of the courts was theirs and not the public's. With this phenomenon impeding their ability to inform the public, they urged judges and reporters to work to get beyond this.
After a limited amount of beating up on each other and occasionally on themselves, the two camps emerged with some shared conclusions. Having a public that is uninformed or with senses dulled disserves both the interests of the courts and of the media. Both the judiciary and the press, individually, could be doing a better job of educating the public.
Finally, and most significantly, each could be doing a better job of assisting the other in this mission.
Of course, education is not the core function for either institution. The courts exist to fairly adjudicate the public's disputes. The media's mission is to inform the public as to current events. An educated public, however, schooled in the ways of the courts, invariably will better respect that branch of government and will also more highly value the day-to-day contributions of the press toward keeping it legitimately informed.
Admittedly, there is some tendency of judges to want to see the press educate in a certain (read non-controversial) way. To borrow a Mills Lane metaphor, a judge could listen to a journalist playing the Star Spangled Banner on a banjo all day.
"When there's a peg, we'll gladly educate" stipulated the AP's Deutsch. In other words, a news story should, when pertinent, strive to better explain such things as bail setting criteria judges are required to apply or the legislature's role in setting sentencing ranges.
But don't expect a treatise. For that, the editors and publishers present affirmed their eagerness to run judicial op ed pieces on any topic from bail to sentencing to antitrust law (to court-media relations?).
Media representatives also acknowledged that the press can do a better job of educating the public and at the same time helping the courts by insisting that the journalistic community maintain high standards for responsible reporting, A poorly researched, sensationalized story by one station about one judge can damage the credibility of all courts and all news organs. "Get it first but get it right" remains a journalistic credo that has benefits for all.
With substantial justification, reporters feel that too often their efforts at informing the public are frustrated by judicial impediments needlessly placed in the way of their ability to report on what is going on in court. Exhibits may be sealed, files made unavailable for review, cameras barred, gag orders issued and judges may refuse to comment, all for no good reason.
Not only does the public suffer in the short term from such institutional aloofness but, it was the consensus in Reno, ultimately the courts do as well. Deprived of the best information available, the public's level of confidence in their court system will erode.
It most certainly behooves judges to facilitate the efforts of reporters (including those who travel with camera crews) to attend all court sessions. They should take affirmative steps to ensure access to all exhibits and court documents. And they should make themselves available for press interviews and speak more freely about both general issues confronting the courts and procedural aspects of a particular case.
By taking these cooperative steps, the courts and the media can better equip the citizenry for active, informed participation in their ordered, democratic society, It was a tiny fraction of the nation's judiciary and news media that was present for the talks in Reno. All judges need to be encouraged to embody more of the openness that is the hallmark of the American press. All reporters and editors need to be encouraged to embody more of the fairness that is the hallmark of our courts.
Late in the conference, Judge Robert Pirraglia of Rhode Island observed that "This discussion should be lively, loud, public and continuous" In closing the conference, Dean William Slater of the Journalism School charged those present to "go forth and spread the word."
Everyone then headed home to pass the commitment to a new cooperation along to their colleagues. There is much work to be done within the ranks of both the judiciary and the press.
Let me tune up my banjo here and sing briefly of the public's role as constituents of the one group and consumers of the product of the other. The public should demand of their judges and of their news media that these efforts be made and made sincerely. If not, they should stand ready to take a chunk outta someone!
William L. Downing has been a King County Superior Court Judge since 1989 and currently serves as the Chair of the Washington State Bench-Bar-Press Liaison Committee.
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