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.•


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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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.