Reporters ignore importance, complexity of justice system

Tuesday, December 15, 1998

“Where are you from?”

The question came from a judge in Florida’s 20th judicial circuit, on the second day of my career as a newspaper reporter.

The judge asked me the question after reading my article on an evidence-suppression hearing in his courtroom the day before. There was something about the article’s attention to legal procedure that convinced him that I had a different background than other reporters.

The judge was right. I was fresh out of law school, full of enthusiasm for the finer points of criminal procedure.

Unfortunately, that same legal training had led me to write a piece that only a mother could love and only a judge could understand. My editors buried the dry account deep inside the newspaper.

Lesson learned: I could write the newspaper equivalent of a law review article and please judges, or I could write the kinds of stories that pleased editors. There was a difference. My editors were looking for pathos, not procedure; drama, not dictum. According to a new study of criminal justice and the press, they still are.

News priorities that focus on crime and not the courts are described in detail in “Indictment: The News Media and The Criminal Justice System,” a new study by First Amendment Center visiting scholars Tom Wicker and Wallace Westfeldt. (Free copies are available: Call 800/830-3733. Request publication 98-F04.)

Among their findings:

  • The nation’s news media have failed to live up their responsibility as watchdogs of the criminal justice system. Newspaper reporters cover only the smallest fraction of courtroom events, and there is virtually no meaningful coverage of the courts by television news reporters.
  • Reporters have little patience with the complexity of the law, dismissing important legal distinctions as “technicalities.”
  • Federal courts consistently are ignored.
  • Several innovative attempts by judges to help reporters do a better job have been underused and overlooked.

Wicker and Westfeldt also believe some of the blame for mediocre coverage of the courts is with judges. The authors contend that permitting cameras in the courtroom — particularly the U.S. Supreme Court — would dramatically advance public understanding of the judicial process.

“Indictment” is both candid and constructive, reminding us that virtually all of the nation’s news media need to do a better job of reporting with credibility on criminal justice. That means a greater commitment of resources, better training for reporters and even coverage of “procedural” matters now and then. The real story of the criminal justice system is in the details.