Who Are Those Guys? Courts Face a Rapidly Changing News Industry

Traditional news organizations have been slashing news staffs, and many veteran court reporters have left the profession. New models of news coverage are emerging, bringing new challenges and new opportunities for courts wishing to communicate with the public.

John Kostouros
Communications Director, Minnesota Judicial Branch
2011

Public-opinion studies have revealed that much of what the public knows about the courts and the justice system it learned from newspapers and television.  That is why court professionals, looking for ways to educate the public about the role and the work of the courts and to promote court programs and innovations, have historically focused their efforts on reporters and editorial writers from traditional news organizations:  newspapers, television news programs, and radio news staffs.  

But the recession and structural changes in how companies advertise and reach consumers have led to thousands of layoffs at newspapers and television stations and the demise of several once prominent newspapers.  At the same time, competition from new, free Internet-based news providers has cost newspapers paid subscribers and TV news viewers, leaving editors scrambling to identify new editorial strategies that will attract readers and viewers.

The downsizing of newspaper and television news staffs and the near elimination of radio news staffs has resulted in the departure of many veteran court reporters, who had spent years learning the ins and outs of the complex legal system.  Court staffs are increasingly seeing young, inexperienced reporters who seem to know little about how courts function or the role of the courts in our democracy or our justice system.  The combination of an inexperienced reporter and a high-profile court case can be a volatile mix.

A case in point:  The New Jersey Supreme Court remanded to a special master part of a high-profile case involving the state and an advocacy group. The state filed a motion asking the court to spell out in more detail what evidence would be admissible for consideration. The court denied the motion, but indicated in their order that the special master could consider whatever evidence he felt was relevant.

A new reporter with no experience covering the supreme court or the practice of law in New Jersey misunderstood the court’s action and completely reversed the practical outcome of the court’s order.  Without calling the court for assistance, the reporter wrote a story announcing that the court had disallowed the special master from considering the broader budgetary issues surrounding the case.  The story was picked up by another news outlet, which did not call the court to confirm the validity of the first story.  A state senator saw the story and issued a press release blasting the supreme court for ignoring the state’s fiscal crisis.  Calls to both reporters succeeded in getting the stories corrected, but by that point, the damage had been done. 

New Models Emerge

It is not just inexperienced reporters who are bringing new challenges to courts wanting to communicate with the public.  New models of news gathering are emerging, most of which are tied to the Internet.  Some are variations on the traditional theme.  Several newspapers have discontinued publishing a paper product and shifted their efforts to a Web site, usually with much smaller news staffs.  The transition to the Web has created pressure to generate more graphic images, something that can be hard to do in states that do not allow cameras in their trial courts, and to focus heavily on dramatic criminal trials.  Former newspaper operations in Detroit, Las Vegas, and Denver now publish only via the Web.

Several cities have seen the emergence of new Web-only news operations.  The Web news entities vary in purpose from trying to be an online newspaper to being an aggregator of stories produced elsewhere.  Many are staffed by veteran reporters who have left their newspaper or television news jobs and are working for reduced pay.  Many observers question what will happen to the quality of Web news products when those experienced reporters and editors decide to retire or tire of working for low pay.  Grants from foundations and donations provide much of the financial support for these efforts.

Another new entity, which tends to go by the name of “citizen journalism,” has emerged in several cities. These Web-based operations tend to have a small staff and rely on reports from contributors, some of whom are community activists or advocates for a particular cause.  The Twin Cities Daily Planet in Minneapolis invites anyone who has an interest to “become a Daily Planet Citizen journalist.”  Grants from local community foundations provide most of the financial support.  Coverage tends to range widely, from stories about local neighborhood councils to observations about national or foreign events.  The quality and accuracy of the reporting also varies.

Tennessee Report (www.tnreport.com), which calls itself a nonprofit, donorsupported news service, focuses mostly on state government.  Tennessee Report says it “strives to advance the understanding of state spending, programs, regulation and legislative activities that influence commerce, culture, liberty and the role of government in Tennessee.”  Their motto is “Good journalism, Free journalism.  We’re volunteering. You’re supporting.”

Sometimes one of these new entities ends up becoming a major player in a story.  When the 2008 Minnesota U.S. Senate race ended in a virtual dead heat, it took a recount, a court trial, and a ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court to decide the winner.  The organization that provided wall-to-wall Webcasting of the trial and the supreme court hearing was not a local newspaper or television station, which had said they did not have the resources to cover every day of the months long battle.  Instead, a relatively new citizen-journalism entity called The Uptake, which specializes in live Webcasting of public hearings and events, offered to provide the coverage.

Court staff were initially reluctant to rely on The Uptake in such a high-profile case, not having worked with them or even heard of them before the case.  But early experience demonstrated that the organization was able to provide a quality live Webcast, and The Uptake became the main source of Web-based coverage.  After the trial, numerous commentators praised the courts for allowing the transparency provided by the daily Webcasting.

Washington, D.C. observers report that one of the leading sources of news about the trial over the murder of former congressional aid Chandra Levy was provided by a Web site operated by amateur bloggers interested in the case.  Even local newspaper and TV reporters used the site to keep up with the trial.

The influx of untrained citizen reporters into a world once reserved for trained and credentialed journalists overseen by professional editors includes “bloggers”—writers who operate their own Web sites and report unfiltered by editors.  Sometimes the bloggers become the source of information for newspaper and TV reporters.  However, when the reports are republished without independent verification, misinformation can leak into even a professionally produced newspaper or TV news program.

The line between journalists and nonjournalists was once clear.  It is not anymore, and court staff are being approached by a wide variety of information seekers wanting the kind of special access to court records, hearings, and assistance that has traditionally been afforded newspaper and television reporters.  The trend can be especially challenging when it comes time to decide who gets into a courtroom with limited seating for a high-profile trial.  With few rules to guide them, court staff are forced to decide whether citizen journalists should be allowed to sit in the section reserved for news media when anyone can call themselves a citizen journalist.  The topic has been much debated in recent years by members of the Conference of Court Public Information Officers (CCPIO), both at their annual meetings and on their e-mail discussion group.

Managers of the Minnesota Capitol landed in the middle of a heated debate when The Uptake wanted to rent space historically reserved for credentialed news media.  Access was eventually granted The Uptake, but not without strong opposition from some traditional journalists, who worried that The Uptake would not play by the same rules of fairness and professional courtesy in practice at the capitol newsroom for decades.

The Society of Professional Journalists, which has chapters in many states, promotes a code of professional conduct, and often hosts educational conferences for working journalists, has loosened its membership requirements in reaction to the changing times.  “Our concern is not with deciding who is or is not a journalist,” SPJ president Hagit Limor told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Rather, we want to expose everyone to good journalistic practices.”

“Whether they be bloggers, content aggregators or even writers or broadcasters who promote a particular political or social agenda, we’d rather not have them out there saying, ‘I’m not a journalist so I don’t have to follow any rules,’” Limor told the newspaper.

The End of Newspapers?

Much has been made of several studies showing that newspapers and TV news programs are losing a growing share of their audience to Web-based news sources, especially among young adults.  A study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that in 2010, for the first time, the Internet had surpassed television as the main source of national and international news for people under 30.  Since 2007, the number of 18 to 29 year olds citing the Internet as their main source had nearly doubled, from 34 percent to 65 percent.

It is not just the young who are turning to the Internet for their news.  The same survey found that among those 30 to 49, the Internet is on track to equal or surpass television as their main source of national and international news.  Currently, 48 percent of those surveyed said the Internet is their main source of news.  Even older Americans are turning to their computers for news, with 34 percent of respondents 50 to 64 saying the Internet was now their main news source.  It is worth pointing out, however, that local television news programs and newspapers remain the main sources of local news for most people.

It is also worth noting that a 2010 study found that the most viewed Internet news sites were actually produced by “legacy media,” the name now commonly used to describe traditional news sources such as newspapers and television news programs. In other words, while it is true that more and more Americans are turning to the Internet for their news, much of the news they are reading online is being produced by newspaper and TV news staffs.

Reporters’ Roles Are Changing 

It is not just the news platform that is changing.  The work journalists are being required to do is changing, also.  Newspapers often require reporters to post an early version of a story on the paper’s Web site the day before the story appears in the newspaper. No longer do reporters have until evening to make sure their stories are complete and accurate. Reporters concede that the pressure to post their stories quickly results in more errors and misinterpretations.  The good news for court staffs is that by monitoring local-news Web sites during the day they can sometimes correct an inaccurate story before it appears in the next day’s newspaper.

Television reporters have seen their workload skyrocket in recent years as local stations have programmed multiple news and information programs throughout the day in addition to their traditional evening news programs.  The pressure to create multiple stories each day, as well as multiple versions of the same story as the day goes on, leaves TV reporters with little time to research and fully understand the details and implications of a story.  It can also make them less available to attend court-sponsored educational programs or produce stories about court-community outreach events. 

What Can Courts Do?

The arrival of many inexperienced and, in many cases, low-skilled news reporters has meant new challenges for courts.  How do we ensure that their court reporting is accurate and complete?  One approach has been to add citizen journalists and bloggers to the distribution list for court news releases.  Another is to prepare briefing materials in the form of a news story that can be quickly absorbed and even copied by inexperienced reporters.

Some courts that have for years been offering “Law School for Journalists” or educational workshops for reporters and editors are opening them up to citizen journalists.  When the Minnesota Court Information Office hosted workshops on access to court records via the Internet, several of the 32 reporters and editors who attended were from the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

Many court public information offices have developed media guides to assist inexperienced reporters in covering court stories.  Many are posted on state court Web sites.  In 2010 the National Association for Court Management (NACM) published a media guide produced by court public information officers that included helpful hints for court staffs (www.nacmnet.org).  A list of these and other resources can be found on the National Center for State Courts Web site (www.ncsc.org).

Courts have started posting videos of court proceedings, as well as court orders and appellate opinions, on their Web sites, making it easy for less experienced reporters to view the material.  It also allows the news organization to link to the material from their Web sites, giving viewers immediate access to the source of the story.  Posting videos of hearings and court orders and opinions has the added benefit of allowing members of the public to bypass the filter of news reports and view and make their own judgments about court actions. 

Conclusion 

The changing world of news gathering and publishing is creating new challenges for courts.  Efforts to educate inexperienced reporters from traditional and newer news organizations about the complex world of courts can be time-consuming and occasionally frustrating.  But it can also enhance the accuracy and completeness of court reporting.  One court public information officer took a call from a new local television reporter who did not know the difference between a trial and an appellate court.  The officer patiently explained the role of each in the legal system.

The changes in the news industry are also creating new opportunities for courts.  Many court information officers report that because the newer organizations often have small staffs, they are more open to reporting information about court programs or activities in the community than traditional news outlets.

The new news outlets are making it easier for citizens to access court records and rulings pertinent to a story.  The hope is that this new access will help citizens to better understand the role of the courts in our democracy and in our justice system.