Judges, journalists get down to brass tacks of communication

Friday, November 10, 2000

EVANSTON, Ill. — Journalists and federal judges from 10 states
gathered here yesterday for a daylong discussion of how to break down barriers
of misunderstanding and improve communications between the two groups. Access
and accuracy topped the list of the participants’ concerns in the session,
co-sponsored by the First Amendment Center.

In the first of a series of regional “Justice and Journalism”
conferences, the judges agreed that what they look for from journalists is a
correct report of what happened in their courtrooms, coupled with some legal
grasp of the significance of their rulings. But the judges varied widely in how
far they were willing to go to help reporters reach that result. Judges said
they were often reluctant to talk to reporters, even when they were not going
to be quoted.

On the journalists’ side, the access concerns ranged from the easily
correctable to the more vexingly complex. A situation easy to remedy would be a
federal courthouse that closes too early, inadvertently shutting out reporters
trying to cover a trial that runs late. More difficult problems include
establishing trust between judges and reporters and giving broadcast news a
better opportunity to cover federal proceedings.

“I personally believe the federal courts are not accessible to the
broadcast media at all,” said Rick Kupchella, an anchor and reporter for
KARE-TV in Minneapolis. He claimed there is a “blatant bias” against “the
medium where most Americans receive their information.”

“Make yourself available … maybe on an informal basis. If you
let people get to know each other as people, it can go a long way to (better)
covering of things,” said Marti Heline of the South
(Ind.) Tribune.

The judges generally were hesitant about the idea of talking to
reporters to explain their rulings, citing ethical constraints against
commenting on pending matters. But the reporters said there are a number of
ways short of on-the-record interviews in which judges can get word to
journalists if a story is wrong and point them in the right direction on the
significance of a case or ruling.

Dick Carelli, senior public affairs officer for the Administrative
Office of the U.S. Courts and until recently the veteran Associated Press
reporter covering the Supreme Court, noted that the late Chief Justice Warren
Burger, for example, met annually with journalists covering the high court to
hear their concerns and suggestions. Chief Justice William Rehnquist has
continued that practice, Carelli said.

The conference was held on the campus of Northwestern University and
jointly sponsored by the First Amendment Center, the Judicial Branch of the
Judicial Conference of the United States and the Northwestern Center of the
Advanced Study of Free Expression. By day’s end, the journalists and judges
agreed on some recommendations that could improve coverage of the courts,

An orientation session sponsored by the federal courts for
reporters who routinely cover judicial proceedings, and an equal effort by
journalists to enlighten the judges on the operations of the news media and to
highlight problems faced by justice reporters.

The possibility of regular meetings between judges and
journalists to discuss specific issues and ideas of mutual concern.

The streamlining of access to information, including a greater
reliance on the Internet to make everything from court dockets and rulings to
oral arguments available online.

Making evidence in high-profile cases available to reporters
to examine.

Designating a contact in each court to serve as a liaison
between judges and journalists.

Publishing a guide or booklet that could include a glossary of
terms and their meanings and that would explain the difference between state
and federal courts.

Questioned by John
Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, most of the judges
acknowledged that news coverage of their courts was usually fair and accurate
and that the news media did a pretty good job in terms of both reporting cases
correctly and understanding legal significance. But two judges raised specific
cases they personally had been involved with that they said showed the damage
that can be done by the news media.

Bankruptcy Judge Susan Sonderby, chief judge of U.S. Bankruptcy Court
for the Northern District of Illinois, told of a reporter who misread a court
filing and listed her as the debtor instead of the judge hearing the case. The
result was a news story saying that Sonderby, a bankruptcy judge who oversees
others’ cases stemming from bad debts, had filed for bankruptcy herself.

Sonderby said she normally does not talk to reporters, but she surely
would have talked to the journalist in this case had he taken the time to call
her before running the story. The reporter did no other checking of the
information before the story ran, she said.

Although Sonderby said she and her husband decided not to request a
retraction from the newspaper for fear that the story would gain an even
greater reach, the journalists at the conference agreed that the error was so
egregious that they would have pursued a correction even against the wishes of
the aggrieved party.

“We’re in the business of printing truth and facts, and when we get it
wrong, you’ve got to correct it,” said Tim Harmon, managing editor of the
South Bend Tribune.

U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen of Chicago, the chief judicial host
of the conference, said federal judges should be aware that “the greater
distance we put between us and reporters,” the greater likelihood of something
“horribly inaccurate” being said about them.

The journalists were less sympathetic to the plight of Judge Phil
Gilbert of Benton, Ill. A newspaper reported correctly that his seven-year term
as chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of
Illinois was ending and that he was resuming regular status on the federal
bench. Gilbert’s gripe was with the headline — “Gilbert Steps Down as
Chief Judge” — which led numerous people to believe he was leaving the
federal bench.

Gilbert said he had fielded a host of retirement letters, farewell
telephone calls and even offers for employment since that story ran. “These
last 30 days have been hell for me,” he told the group.

But Gretchen Schuldt, federal courts reporter for the
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, took
issue with Gilbert. “That’s accurate,” she told the judge, adding that the
problem was with readers who “are illiterate” and misinterpreted the

“I did not step down voluntarily,” Gilbert replied.

“Whether it was voluntary or not, he’s stepping down,” Schuldt

“It’s inevitable,” summarized Seigenthaler. “We’re going to make
mistakes. We hate them. We don’t correct them often enough.”

Seigenthaler and Gene
Policinski, deputy director of the First Amendment Center, raised the issue
of gag orders with the judges, but most said they had never agreed to one. The
few who had issued gag orders said they did so only in cases where there were
genuine concerns over trade secrets or extreme personal privacy

The judges also noted that by and large, most of the cases they hear
and the rulings they make are done to empty courtrooms with only the parties to
the case present. Judge Catherine Perry of the U.S. District Court for the
Eastern District of Missouri estimated that more than 90% of her cases fall
into that category.

“The vast majority of our cases, no one (in the media) cares what we
are doing. The people in the case care,” but no one else, she said.

Judge William J. Bauer, senior judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for
the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, agreed.

The only crowds in his courtroom for oral arguments on appeals are in
cases involving abortion rights or some First Amendment religious-freedom
issue, Bauer said. “Otherwise, we practically have to blow the place up” to get
people there.

Reporters don’t cover most appeals court opinions, either, he said.
“Why should they?” he asked. “They’re not newsworthy.”

For a judge who wants publicity, Bauer had this wry advice: “Use very
unusual language or say something really outrageous. That’s going to make the

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