News coverage of court proceedings can be maddeningly inconsistent. Some reporters are masters of the beat and have a deep understanding of law and procedure. Others, new to the courthouse, mangle rulings and misunderstand legal concepts.
It drives judges batty – but there’s something they can do to help. To improve news reports, judges should talk to the reporters who cover them and explain what they do and how they do it.
That was the recommendation of four experts – two former judges, a journalist and a media professor – at a Nov. 12 program sponsored by the ABA Judicial Division, titled “When ‘No Comment’ Won’t Do: Courts Communicating Through the Media.”
“When there is a new face in your courtroom whom you believe is a journalist, you ought to engage that person and have that person meet with you,” said Ben Holden, an associate professor of media at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Journalists are not hostile to you. They are mostly scared of screwing up.”
Dahlia Lithwick, a legal reporter for Slate, agreed, saying judges don’t often hold press conferences or give public briefings, so they rely on reporters to translate their work for the public. “There needs to be some kind of intervening moment at which things are explained” to the reporter by the judge or the court’s public information officer, Lithwick said.
W. Terry Ruckriegle, a retired judge with the Colorado District Court, recommended that judges have brown-bag lunches with reporters. In Colorado, he said, judges sometimes hold informal classes for journalists and judges, which he called “Courts and Judiciary 101.” “The responsibility falls on the court to make sure that accurate information gets to those who report to the public,” Ruckriegle said.
Lithwick said she loves the idea of a brown-bag lunch “because it makes you a person. It says. ‘I am here, I am accessible, I want to answer your questions, I want to be in dialogue with you.’”
The problem of spotty court coverage is exacerbated, Lithwick said, by the fact that some court reporters today have little experience covering the law. “The person who is covering your court this week was probably covering the weather last week and will be doing the school board next week,” she said.
Holden, a former editor in chief at a daily newspaper in Georgia, said building a rapport between journalists and judges is crucial. He recalled an incident when a judge asked him to hold a news story about snipers on the courthouse roof after a jail break. He complied, but only because he trusted the judge.
“I did that because I had a relationship with the judge,” Holden said. “What I want from a judge is what I want from any relationship. I want honesty, I want transparency and no BS, and if you can’t tell me something or can’t share something with one of my reporters, I want a straight shooter who lets me know why and who doesn’t treat me like a child.”
Courts need to go the extra mile to make sure reporters understand their rulings, Lithwick said – perhaps adding headnotes that explain the holding of the court, even if that seems like “anathema to the judicial process.”
In Canada, Lithwick said, the Supreme Court takes extreme measures to make sure reporters understand their rulings. She said the court locks reporters in a room for two hours and takes away their phones, so they have time to read and understand opinions before writing stories. Press officers are available to explain complex ideas, she said.
It sounds Orwellian, Lithwick said, “but it also means they get it right.”
In the United States, Lithwick added, the opposite is true. Twenty years ago, she said, reporters had time to read and digest opinions before writing. A reporter would leave the Supreme Court at 11 a.m. and have until 5 p.m. to turn in a story. Today, with the pressures of social media and round-the-clock news, that’s no longer possible. “There is no option to do things slowly anymore,” she said.
Andre M. Davis, a former federal appeals court judge in Baltimore, paraphrased a recent speech by Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman in Washington, D.C.: “Judges really need to step up and be a lot more assertive, if not aggressive, in speaking directly through the media to the public about what courts do.”