A Primer for the Layman, and a Must-Read for Journalists

By Hengstler, Gary A. | Judicature, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

A Primer for the Layman, and a Must-Read for Journalists


Hengstler, Gary A., Judicature


A primer for the layman, and a must-read for journalists Media and American Courts: A Reference Handbook, by S.L. Alexander. ABC CLO. 2004. 300 pages. $50.

Covering the Courts: A Handbook for Journalists, second Edition, by S.L. Alexander. Rowman & Littlefield. 2003. 184 pages. $60 cloth. $21.95 paper.

The spate of nationally prominent criminal trials over the past two years has created a heightened public interest in both courts and the media. A growing number of nonlawyers are intrigued by the human dramas inherent in such high-profile trials. In Media and American Courts, S.L. Alexander provides a primer for the fascinated layman. At the same time, lawyers and journalists will find much benefit in the concise and precise overview of the terrain.

Beginning with a historical review, she provides brief summaries of many cases, ranging from Aaron Burr to the Rosenbergs to OJ. Simpson to President Clinton and even the Bush-Gore election legal contest, all of which have captured the media's attention. These summaries are quick reads, but are sufficient to give readers a good flavor of what happened.

She then moves on to the areas of tension historically built into our Constitution between the First Amendment's free press rights and the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a fair trial. Dealing with such matters as closed proceedings, sealed records, prejudicial publicity, and cameras in the courtroom, she provides a substantive overview of the policy issues through specific examples. This section probably is more useful for the layman, since most lawyers have a general idea of the turf battles.

One of the most helpful sections for lawyers, however, is her chronology of the major U.S. Supreme Court decisions affecting free press/fair trial. Her account not only summarizes the facts but succinctly points out the major holdings that help to put the evolution into perspective.

Under the theory that one can't tell the players without a scorecard, Alexander also includes thumbnail biographies of the leading judges, journalists, lawyers, and authorities involved in dealing with both the courts and the media. However, she limits her list to those currently on the scene, which, again, is more helpful to the layman who only now is becoming familiar with some of these new court-driven celebrities.

Then she switches back to material that is helpful to both court and media scholars. Her research section highlights the major studies undertaken to assess the status of issues. Acknowledging the area is fraught with ethical concerns, she points to the codes that bind lawyers and judges and are strong suggestions to journalists. She also provides contact information for virtually all of the legal and journalism organizations coping with today's points of conflict. And for those who want to delve more deeply into a particular case, she offers a substantial bibliography of books, films, and other resources.

All in all, Media and American Courts is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in this field but who hasn't had grounding in the basics. It is a welcome addition to the bookshelf of any lawyer, judge, or journalist whose acquaintances pop up with a question in the area at social gatherings. Alexander has done your preliminary research for you.

Covering the courts

If there is one constant refrain from judges about reporters covering their courts, it is that too many scribes sent to cover trials simply don't know what they are doing and regularly demonstrate it through inaccuracies in their reports. It is an Achilles heel in the media that even veteran legal affairs reporters acknowledge is more prevalent than they would like. Simply put, editors too often send a general assignment reporter to cover a newsworthy trial, but the language, process, rules, and news sources are foreign territory. Quite often, it shows in the resulting work.

This is why Alexander's Covering the Courts: A Handbook for Journalists is a must-read for any reporter whose beat might include the courts. …

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