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Indiana Judges Association: Do media measure up in court coverage?

David J. Dreyer
December 5, 2012
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IJA-Dreyer-DavidOne fine spring day, I awoke to find my morning newspaper published an editorial about me – and what I had done. It complained about a temporary restraining order in a high-profile case. I soon visited the editor hoping a “teachable moment” might occur. It was a cordial and pleasant conversation. I was assured there is never any intention of influencing independent court decisions on the editorial page. (Alas, the moment for teaching had indeed presented itself.) I politely explained that the editorial effectively accomplished what the paper did not intend – telling a judge what to do with a pending case. The editor, an experienced newspaper professional, had no idea whatsoever that a “temporary restraining order” was not a final order, and that the case would continue for quite some time before final judgment. In fact, I explained, the editorial told everyone what I should do before the very first hearing. The newspaper had exposed a bias on the merits of the case without realizing it because it did not understand the legal or procedural posture.

Besides mistaken legal reporting, some readers and viewers are left without knowing anything about courts, let alone how the legal system works. Although judicial canons preclude cameras in Indiana courtrooms, no regular reporters are found there either. In 1992, there were three full-time reporters in my county building mostly covering courts. Today, reporters only come to watch public figures, sensational crime stories or a large criminal sentence announced. Consequently, the public knows more about Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox than the crimes and lawsuits that shape their community.

As we judges and lawyers know, public confidence in courts is a vital cornerstone, and that is no platitude. As a 2003 American Bar Association study noted:

“A government of the people, by the people and for the people rises or falls with the will and consent of the governed. The public will not support institutions in which they have no confidence. The need for public support and confidence is all the more critical for the judicial branch, which by virtue of its independence is less directly accountable to the electorate and, thus, perhaps more vulnerable to public suspicion.”

We judges are obligated to actually ignore popular opinion or preference and apply the law, but we are further constrained to not discuss our decisions on talk shows or interviews. Yet, public confidence in courts is more important than any other branch of government because people need to believe in us or they will not believe or obey our rulings. As we all know, that alternative allows no protection for the rights of anyone or any access to a system of real justice. We all need a public that is “legal literate.” Since most people are not law graduates, we all depend on the media to inform and explain, or public confidence is eroded. Court expert I.U. Maurer Law School professor Charles Geyh has written, “Insofar as the news is communicated in short, image-oriented segments, the public’s understanding of judges and the judiciary will, of necessity, be impressionistic; and to the extent that public opinion influences how policymakers regulate the judiciary, the public’s impressions of judges become very important.”

There is a lot riding on media performance in legal reporting. Do the media miss the mark or even try? The Marion Superior Court media relations officer, Beverly Phillips, is disturbed by reporters who aggressively “stalk” victims of crimes to be first to report something, especially online, but regularly ignore more substantive stories. Famous U.S. Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse has generally worried that reporting fails when it only presents perfunctory information without informative analysis, especially in legal stories. She notes that, “Inside the profession of journalism, there has been a lively debate going on for years over whether the ‘he said, she said’ format, designed to avoid taking sides on contentious issues, impedes rather than enhances the goal of informing the reader. . . . When a . . . judge issues a decision, there is no ‘other side’ to the story. . . . The ‘other side’ is contained in the briefs. . . . But digging up the briefs . . . takes more work than accepting an ad hominem sound bite from someone . . . .”

Yet Kathryn Dolan, our Indiana Supreme Court public information officer, finds the media to be working hard in tough circumstances. She receives 500 to 600 media inquiries each year from Indiana and around the nation. “Every day,” she says, “I speak to Indiana reporters who are excited about covering the judicial branch and who are working hard to explain a complicated legal issue to their audience. I think Indiana media do an excellent job covering the courts.” As a former reporter, Dolan reminds that court coverage “is not an easy assignment.” When cases are so complicated that the parties cannot agree, she argues, reporters are hard-pressed to do the required heavy lifting – but “reporters devote substantial time to figuring out just how to explain the issue.”

Overall, the best way we judges can assure public confidence is to do a good job – and tell the media how we do it. For example, since the 1960s, the state of Washington’s judiciary has formally involved media in educational efforts. Eventually, they formed so–called “fire brigades” to quickly address problems between courts and reporters, which have spread all around the country, including Indiana. In addition, there have been several “Law School for Journalists” sessions over recent years sponsored by Indiana courts, news organizations and others. The more judges talk to the media, the more media will be better able to understand and report the law. As we look ahead in this digital age, there may be no better alternative to preserve badly needed public confidence in the courts.•

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Judge David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.
 

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