New (media) way to get more court coverage?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

An experimental program to open the Quincy (Mass.) District Court to cameras and to tweets and blogs from the courtroom will test-drive a new way of reporting on state and federal courts in an era of dwindling daily coverage by news organizations.

The Quincy court experiment will provide continuous, unedited live streaming of court proceedings each day. Also, live connections by bloggers and others will be permitted, and there will be a special seating section and wi-fi connection.

“Open Court” is a project of WBUR, a Boston National Public Radio station. A number of states already permit live video from state courtrooms. Federal courts in some districts have experimented with some cameras in courtrooms, but no nationwide approach has been adopted. The U.S. Supreme Court bans cameras — still or video — but audio recordings and written transcripts of arguments are available.

Using so-called “citizen journalists” to supplement court coverage, along with live or rebroadcast video and audio, has been discussed by court-media groups for some time, including the Justice and Journalism program on federal courts and the news media, co-sponsored from 1999 to 2009 by the Judicial Branch Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and the First Amendment Center.

Over the decade-long series, concerns grew over the fading presence of traditional news media in state and federal courthouses owing to staff reductions. Increased use of bloggers; “pool” arrangements where one full-time staffer would provide regular court coverage to multiple local outlets, with costs shared by all; and use of live video were among suggestions explored in the meetings.

Among the benefits cited by advocates of cameras, live video and blogging about court proceedings:

  • Resumption of daily or regular court coverage.
  • Increased public access to court proceedings through “cameras in the courtroom” programs.
  • Potential for coverage of appellate courts – traditionally under-reported except for a small number of major cases.

Among concerns about new-media reports by bloggers and live streaming video:

  • Inconsistency, in that bloggers follow only issues in which they are interested rather than provide full coverage.
  • Lack of training in legal terms and procedures.
  • Viewers will watch only portions of arguments or trials, leaving an incomplete impression of what has happened.
  • Some lawyers say they worry about private attorney-client conversations being overheard and reported.

The impact of new technology on reporting about the courts was explored in a one-day symposium earlier this year.

“Public Understanding of the Courts in the Age of New Media” was sponsored by the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University; the American Bar Association, and the Rehnquist Center at the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law. A report on the symposium is in the March-April issue of Judicature magazine.

Tags: , ,