Symposium Examines Courts and the New Media

Article excerpt

Judicature's May-June, 2010 article, "The online juror," is one Of a number of articles and conferences on a hot topic: the effect of the socalled "new media" on how the nation's courts conduct their business and how interested publics learn - or don't - about what they do? A recent addition to those inquiries was a one-day symposium, February 18, 2011, in Phoenix, on "Public Understanding of the Courts in the Age of the New Media."

Following welcoming remarks from ABA Presi dent-Elect William Robinson, ABA Standing Committee on Judicial Improvements chair Judge Norma Shapiro (ED-Pa.) and Rehnquist Center Director Sally Rider, thé symposium featured four panels on how the new media is changing coverage and conduct of trial court proceedings, federal appellate courts and the new media, high profile cases in the digital age, and whether a free press and a fair üial are "dead or alive." Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke on the need for civics education, and then-chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Vaughn Walker, traced the uneven history of video coverage of trials and encouraged more openness to the phenomenon.


Several questions pervaded the symposium, even though not stated explicitly in the agenda.

First, what is the "new media"? The panels pointed to everything from court-related new media forums that have long been part of the woodwork - electronic dockets - to virulent gossip blogs reporting celebrity encounters with courts. The giveand-take in the symposium moved almost seamlessly from the likely impact of tomorrow's technology, to topics that would have fit comfortably in a media-courts seminar in the 1960s, albeit with new twists. The perennial topic of judicial education about dealing with press came up, for example, but such education would have to embrace new forms of communication and a greater variety of people who use them.

And it is not enough to say that the "new media" is Internet-based communications because more traditional, non-print based communications - such as various forms of video transmission - still wait for entry into many courts or reside uncomfortably within them.

Second, how "new" is the "new media"? The "courts and the new media" formulation is increasingly puzzling because to more and more of the population, there is nothing "new" about forms of communication that for the last two decades have increasingly dominated the socalled "legacy media" of print journalism and broadcast and cable news. Courts are not so much bracing for an on-coming tide of technological transformation as trying to sort out how the Internet, blogs, social media sites, and other facts of life have affected and will affect their work - and what they should (or can) do about it.

The "new media" present not so much a dichotomous "new" versus "old" option as a continuum of "more newness." Reporters in the symposium, for example, quickly acknowledged that real-time reporting - filing minute-by-minute updates from the courtroom as a trial proceeds - is a new world. But filing a single story at the end of the day went out the window when newspapers created on-line versions. For another example revealed at the symposium, in 2008 blog posts (from sites generally regarded as responsible and knowledgeable) about decisions of the Second Circuit's court of appeals outnumbered print media stories, 403 to 220. By 2010, the figures were 1,092 to 290. Blogs aren't new; they're just more pervasive.

Third, what difference does the new media make? The most consistent question running through the Phoenix symposium was whether these newer forms of communication have caused courts, the bar, and the press to change fundamentally how they do business with one another, or whether they represent simply a new generation's effort to handle long-standing challenges: Do we have new bottles of wine, or simply new wine in old botdes? …