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Judges, journalists get down to brass tacks of communication

By Cheryl Arvidson
The Freedom Forum Online

11.10.00

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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 Bend (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, including:

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 headline.

"I did not step down voluntarily," Gilbert replied.

"Whether it was voluntary or not, he's stepping down," Schuldt responded.

"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 considerations.

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 paper."

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