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Judges, journalists meet to mend breakdown in communication

Nadia R. Schulman and Dana G. Williams
World Center

10.28.99

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ARLINGTON, Va. — Judges and journalists agreed yesterday they rely on each other to bring stories about court cases to the public, but said there had been a breakdown in communication between the two groups.

"We are each very dependent on the other for our own survival," said Gilbert S. Merritt, a judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. But there's a need, he said, to "bridge the gulf between the press and the judiciary."

Harry T. Edward...
Harry T. Edwards
Merritt spoke at a discussion on "Justice and Journalism: A Conference on the Federal Courts and the News Media" at the World Center. The program was co-sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the Judicial Branch of the Judicial Conference of the United States. The forum, attended by about 30 judges and 15 journalists, was held to promote better understanding between journalists and the justice system.

Judges don't trust the press because "the media makes as much news as it reports," according to Harry T. Edwards, a judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. "What you see in the news are snippets of our work — odd snippets that don't give a fair view of the judiciary."

Tony Mauro...
Tony Mauro
But journalists at the discussion said they could better report on the cases if judges would spend more time with them to explain things they didn't understand. "It would help us to get it right," USA TODAY's Tony Mauro said. "I don't see how that type of exchange could hurt things in terms of accuracy."

Inexperienced junior reporters cover most court beats, Mauro said. These young journalists haven't had the time to establish relationships with the judges, and too often they are taken off the beat soon after starting. But if judges refuse to act as sources for journalists — inexperienced or not — there is more of a chance that the journalist will come away with misinformation, resulting in a misinformed public, he said.

"Accuracy is everything," said Harriet Chiang, legal affairs writer from the San Francisco Chronicle. "If you get the story wrong, it jeopardizes your credibility."

Younger reporters "are not all idiots," said Carrie Johnson, a reporter for Legal Times. "Judges should make sure to take the time to explain the cases to the younger journalists — that's all it takes."

But it can be difficult for journalists to convince any judge to meet with them, Johnson said. "The best way to do it is when you start on a beat," to establish a relationship from the beginning, she said.

Edwards said that as a rule, he never speaks with the press because any damage the journalist does is irreversible once the story is printed or aired. "The public hears and is affected by the media's story," and if the coverage is inaccurate, "there is no good way to reverse [the damage]."

Charles W. Pickering Sr., a judge from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, went even further: He said it wasn't his job to explain his decisions to the press. "Judges should never be [expected] to explain our procedures or why we rule," he said.

Gregory W. Carman, a judge from the U.S. Court of International Trade, agreed. 'I'm not interested in what [the press's] rules are. I'm only interested in my rules.'

Edwards said court coverage also may suffer because law cases are often "boring and tedious." Stories about court cases don't sell newspapers, so reporters may be less likely to put forth the effort to get the stories right, he said.

Much of the time, the public is more interested in the sensational and scandalous aspects of a case, which can taint a reporter's coverage as well, Edwards said. "Sensationalism is a big problem. Most of the coverage does not accurately describe to the public what we do day in and day out."

Reporter Chiang said the O.J. Simpson case five years ago, for instance, "was a sensational circus" that "became a TV sensation," and the public's perception of the court process was affected.

Johnson said, "TV just doesn't have the time to cover courts deeply. There's less and less time than even 10 years ago, and that can be a major constraint" on covering a case accurately.

Harriet Chiang...
Harriet Chiang

As a result of this rush, Chiang said, television journalists "just want a soundbite," which can severely alter the true story.

Panelists discussed ways that journalists and judges could work together to clear their lines of communication. Chiang said television coverage was often flawed because of court decisions handed down late in the day, just before a journalist's deadline. "Morning rulings help because journalists have more of a chance to [come to understand] the case," she said. But a decision handed down at 4 p.m. may not get the attention it deserves, so advance notice of rulings is helpful to journalists, she added.

"It is a great luxury to be able to cover a trial from beginning to end," Chiang said, adding that lawyers working on a case can serve as trustworthy sources as well. "If you're cut off from the lawyers, that can make your job harder in terms of understanding."

Wayne R. Anderson, judge at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, said his courtroom had established a public information officer to act as a go-between for the judges and the press. "It's worked well," he said.

"We hope the public information officer will get judges out to the community ot discuss legal issues in schools and community groups."

The group of judges and journalists agreed that this forum should serve as the first of many to help promote a more efficient, trustworthy work environment for both groups.

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