By definition, high-profile cases arouse intense media attention. Like it or not, courts cannot ignore the media's presence. It is important in a high-profile case for a single person to take control and serve as the liaison to the media. If your court has a dedicated public information officer (PIO), he or she is specially trained for this role. If not, the PIO from the state AOC may be able to step into the role throughout the course of the case. The Conference of Court Public Information Officers (CCPIO) can also identify trained PIOs who may be able to help. If that is not possible, it is important to determine who within the court has the expertise and authority to successfully serve as the court's representative to the media.
Whoever serves in this capacity should be fully informed about all court policies concerning media access during the trial and have the authority to make decisions as needed to better facilitate both the needs of the court, the trial, and the media. The following key areas should be considered by anyone representing the court to the media throughout a high-profile case.
Serving as the court's liaison to the media will sometimes require coordination with external parties, such as local law enforcement, other media liaisons from the community.
- Act as the point-of-contact for county, town, and law enforcement in dealing with day-to-day media-related matters. It is important to present a unified front when working with the media to avoid conflicting information. Media inquiries from other agencies regarding the high-profile case should be forwarded to the court's media liaison.
- Create an e-mail network for external partners. Put as much communication as possible in written form to avoid confusion and conflicting information.
- Hold logistics meetings prior to each proceeding and as requested by the media. Invite other PIOs involved in the case from the county, law enforcement, and town as appropriate.
- Plan for how the court will alert external stakeholders of upcoming case events and plan for enough time to distribute drafts of any logistical memos with time for corrections.
Successfully managing media relations during a high-profile trial requires good communication with court employees.
- Inform employees how to contact the court’s media liaison to divert as much traffic as possible from the clerk’s office. Provide this contact information to all court employees.
- Prepare a training document for all employees in the specific court location about high-profile cases.
- Organize and facilitate a meeting for the media to form a consortium and outline the court’s expectations regarding decorum, courtroom seating, pool distributions, bull pens, work space availability, resources, and any other matters.
Many people (judges, members of the media, etc.) who have been involved with high-profile cases say that gaining the media’s cooperation and understanding is made easier if, at the onset of a trial, information is clearly communicated to them. This meeting provides a way to open the lines of communication between the court and the media while keeping them informed of any decisions or policies that impact them. It also provides the media with an opportunity to form a consortium for their benefit.
- Establish communications channels with the media.
Use e-mail distribution lists or a website to share logistical information and documents to reduce the number of individual contacts or requests.
- Act as the primary liaison with the media for the establishment of a media work space in the courthouse including arrangements for wiring, accesses, and distribution points.
- Assess if there is space available in the court house for a media center. If there is, any costs should be covered by the media. If not, what other options might be available?
- Develop a policy for who qualifies as media and how many representatives each media organization receives, such as “one person per news organization”.
Any time the court representative has to get involved in decisions which define a “news organization” things will get sticky. The territorial distinctions within the major networks or newspaper/radio/magazine groups and how far up or down the family tree you define a “new organization” gets very contentious. There is as much competition within these networks as there is from external organizations. If space is limited, consider having the media pool determine who will use the space and provide you with the list to make arrangements with security officers for access.
- Compile and distribute a press packet, or make information available on a website.
- Decide how passes for the public, media, and the parties will be distributed to allow them to get through security.
There is technology available in some metropolitan court locations that use bar coded credentials. These allow identified persons through security and will automatically tell officers that all the seats are occupied.
Detailed planning and strict enforcement of the seating plan between the media, the public, and the parties may limit complaints about public access but they will never fully eliminate the problem. Even the development of a uniform seating allocation policy may be considered contentious. Generally, one-fourth to one-half of the seats in a courtroom are reserved for the media, with the rest of the space allocated between the parties and the public. It is important to consider where members of the defendant’s family, victims of the crime (if not testifying as witnesses), guests of the court, or other individuals will sit. For obvious reasons, members of the defendant’s family should be seated away from victims of the crime.
As an alternative to the PIO deciding seating, a working committee of the press can develop the criteria for allocating seat assignments, including pool assignments if the media demand for seats exceeds the number that can be assigned to them. The process can be very formal with assigning specific seats to credentialed media or it can be more ad hoc, with seats occupied by the press on a first-come/first-served basis each day. Clear policies regarding seating should be publicized and communicated to relevant parties including policies on how many representatives from each news organization are allowed if there is not enough seating, how reserved seats that are not filled by the stated time of each court session will be allocated, the consequences of a reserved seat not being used for a substantial percentage of time (example: canceling the pass), if entry or exit to the court room is prohibited until there is a break, etc.
- Determine if it will be necessary to credential individual members of the media.
The primary reasons for credentialing media representatives allows the court to limit media access to specific areas, to hold media representatives accountable for compliance with court orders, and for security purposes. Many law enforcement agencies have the capability of producing bar-coded photo credentials that can be utilized. Issuing credentials is a common practice in high-profile trials that can help control access, increase security, and insure that the media reports to the court in a timely fashion.
The initial decision is whether press passes will be issued, and if so, on a permanent or day-to-day basis. Permanent passes last the duration of the trial. Applications for permanent passes can be invited by notices sent out over the wire services or by other means. This allows the PIO to make a list of those who have responded to the notice and decide which reporters from the list should be admitted daily to fill the seats set aside for the media. It is important to determine how many permanent passes will be issued per organization. Successful approaches include issuing one pass per organization or day-to-day passes. Conversely, day-to-day passes can also be issued. Preference is usually given to the local media and those who are covering the trial daily.
Press passes can also be organized to better assist with security. Issuing differential press passes allows the court to control who is permitted access to what facilities (example: granting access to the courtroom, press room, and courthouse compared to granting access only to the courthouse). This is extremely useful for cases in which court security is a particular concern. Another system involves color coding the passes (example: for press, family members, witnesses).
- Media should pay its own way for any facilities improvements they request.
Example of costs they typically bear are the installation of extra phone lines, lot rental if off-site parking is required, still and video pool camera distributions, the media work space, auxiliary listening rooms if additional facilities (such as trailers) need to be brought in, any necessary city/county permits, and all expenses to run sound/video to auxiliary listening facilities.
- Determine if media interviews will be allowed within the courthouse and what constitutes as an interview. Convey the decision to the media early in the trial.
It is important for the media liaison to consider the impact media requests will have on facilities and work with other stakeholders and the media to ensure that any changes won't compromise traffic flow or the safety of visitors to the court.
- Help secure parking for satellite trucks in a location that will not impede normal traffic flow, is agreeable to local officials, and does not interfere with other court business. Note: When satellite trucks are located more than 1,000 feet from the pool camera a booster must be utilized to get the signal to the distribution box. The booster requires a power source or generator.
- Pool audio feeds that cross a street to reach the distribution box must go overhead on poles in troughs placed on top of the surface, or installed underground. Consequently, the placement of the audio/video feed should take height clearance, impediment to traffic flow, safety, and expense into consideration.
- Collaborate with law enforcement to establish fenced areas to separate the media staging areas from the public.
- Make or facilitate arrangements for auxiliary listening/viewing rooms for the public and the media. If rooms are unavailable in the courthouse, alternative options may need to be negotiated in trailers or adjacent buildings. Make provisions to ensure that all terms of the decorum order be enforced in any auxiliary room as in the courtroom.
In a high-profile case it should be expected that the media will make requests to televise proceedings, have pool cameras, or more.
- Work with the media and the judge to accommodate the technical needs/requests to televise proceedings as allowed by the state and local statutes and the judge.
- In most states, a formal, written request to televise or record trial proceedings must be made before the trial begins. If the trial judge in the high-profile case ultimately decides to permit televised proceedings of the case it is prudent for the PIO to convey, the ground rules for the television cameras before the start of the trial. This should delineate which proceedings and which individuals may be photographed. In many cases, limits and prohibitions are set forth in court rules. The most common prohibitions are photographs of jurors. If not specifically provided for in the rules, the PIO should work with the trial judge to determine the judge's policies on who may be recorded so these policies can be conveyed to the media.
- If the proceedings will be televised, consider having a single camera. A single static feed can help dampen the entertainment value of televising the trial.
- If cameras will not be allowed in the courtroom, media may request access for a courtroom artist. The media will bear the expenses and arrange for the artist. The court will be asked to provide 1-2 seats in a prime location for the artist to work.
- It is important to make sure the media pays wherever appropriate. For example, the costs of any special platforms needed to televise the proceedings or the costs of the artist.
- Work with the media and the judge to accommodate the technical needs/requests for pool cameras as allowed by the state and local statutes and the judge.
- Work with the media and the judge to secure pool camera locations both inside and out of the court if allowed by the judge. The media will at a minimum be asking for a pool camera in one hallway location, a building entrance, and a podium location. Each location will involve one still and one video camera.
- Regardless of what pool camera locations are approved, convey any expectations, prohibitions, or rules to the media in an effort to reduce potential problems.
- Work with the media and the judge to accommodate the technical needs/requests for outside television broadcast platforms as allowed by the state and local statutes and the judge.
- Before permitting the construction of outside television broadcast platforms, consider the following questions:
- What effect will platforms have on the general atmosphere of the proceedings?
- How will they affect the community?
- Are there local ordinances prohibiting such structures?
- Do they require building permits?
- Will they remain in tact between proceedings or do they have to be constructed and removed each time?
- Where and how many will be allowed?
- Who will determine who gets a spot?
- What spot do they get if limited space is available? and
- Are power sources easily available or will lines need to be run on overhead poles or through troughs in the street?
- Determine a procedure for posting documents and follow it rigorously. If using a website for documents, establish a posting procedure which will ensure that documents will be available on the site a minimum of 15 minutes prior to their being available in the clerk's office to divert traffic from the clerk's counter.
- Ensure that documents are checked for appropriate redaction prior to reaching the person who will be posting the documents. It is important that at least one step in the process is a review by a researcher familiar with the case and all types of information that statutorily needs to be redacted.
- In advance, generate a method for document distribution to any relevant parties. Document distribution on days of proceedings can present a challenge even if they are posted on the website. Electronic access may not be available to those on location covering the story. The two most obvious options for circumventing this potential problem are: 1. The court makes copies and distributes them; or 2. A copy of the document is given to the media consortium coordinator for duplication and distribution.
- Determine if the case will require the pool feed to be edited to protect witnesses and victims. If the case involves alleged victims whose names will need to be deleted, voices need altering, or witness’ faces obscured, all this must be worked out far in advance of the proceeding. Typically, a delayed audio/video signal will allow the pool camera technicians to do the editing. This is one of the areas where depending upon professionals experienced in court coverage who have a reputation to uphold is a good move if possible. Their livelihood depends upon covering the courts today, tomorrow, and well into the future. Their engineers know what questions to ask and know that not to do. No matter who it is however, your specific requirements should be outlined in writing to give to every technician who ends up in the courtroom. If the court is providing the feed, it will need to take the appropriate steps to ensure that all the issues are addressed internally.