Judges and journalists: Bridging the divide

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Judges and journalists see their respective worlds in distinctly different ways.

That was particularly apparent at the recent “Justice and Journalism” conference we hosted in Arlington, Va. The event, initiated by the Judicial Branch Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, brought together 30 federal judges and more than a dozen journalists who report on the courts to discuss how to improve news coverage of the judicial process.

The journalists made the case for more information and greater access to the courts — including cameras in courtrooms. Some judges responded that they were striving to make the courts more accessible and understandable to both press and public, citing informal background conversations with reporters and the timely distribution of court decisions.

Other judges — citing what they perceived to be irresponsible and sensational reporting — indicated that they felt no obligation to inform the press or the public. In essence, they view their job as the administration of justice with-out an affirmative duty to publicize or illuminate what goes on in the courtroom.

“I do not choose to talk to the press,” said Judge B. Avant Eden-field, from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, who emphasized the need for impartiality in the courtroom. “I know that whatever I say will be diluted or transformed into something I don't recognize.”

In some ways, Judge Edenfield's comments illustrate the divide between judges and journalists. Many judges are dumbfounded that the news media would be presumptuous enough to expect them to act as sources of information.

A judge's concern is ensuring the fair administration of justice, not engaging in public relations. Why can't the press send trained reporters who understand the law and report fairly and accurately?

Many journalists are similarly dumbfounded that some judges see no duty to help inform the public. The executive and legislative branches of government both see extensive scrutiny and are expected to respond to public inquiries.

Why would the judiciary — the only branch of government to include life-time appointments — feel above all that?

Throughout the conference, the comments were candid and the conversation constructive, but it was also clear that many of the participants had made up their minds about judges and journalists long ago.

Significant changes in the way the press and the court view and work with each other may have to wait for another generation.

That's one of the reasons I embraced the opportunity this fall to become an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, teaching a new course, “Litigation and Journalism: Client Representation and Ethical Conduct in High-Visibility Cases.”

The course is designed to give law students a better understanding of the First and Sixth Amendments, exploring how our rights to free speech and free press interact with a defendant's right to a fair trial.

The class also gives students a chance to interact with judges and lawyers who handle high-profile cases and journalists who have reported on them.

In one class, we even did mock interviews with the students, placing them in the same kind of press -conference and courthouse-steps tapings that they would be likely to experience as a lawyer in a highly visible case.

The course has given us some additional understanding of how America's youngest lawyers are likely to view the relationship between press and courts.

Some lessons I've learned while teaching:

  • The law students who spent their undergraduate and law school years watching the O.J. Simpson criminal and civil tri-als appear to hold courtroom theatrics in disdain, but they also hold those who report such theatrics in low regard.
  • This generation is a tough sell when it comes to arguing the valuable role the press plays in society. While embracing the notion of freedom of the press, these students haven't been impressed by what they believe to be exploitative and sensational news media.
  • As a generation raised on television and multimedia, they will be more comfortable with the electronic media than their predecessors. Universal use of cameras in courtrooms should only be a matter of time.

Despite their suspicions about the news media, the students seemed to grow more comfortable with the idea of contact with the press as the course continued.

In the words of third-year law student and course teaching assistant Adam Newton, class members are more likely to see the press “as humans and not adversaries.” That's a start.