Starting Your Own Bench/media Forum

Article excerpt

Bob Schulman and Ed Staats, both organizers of the Kentucky bench/media forums, offered the following suggestions for journalists interested in developing a series of forums in their community:

Find your focus. The Kentucky forums sprang out of a series of university-- sponsored seminars that used literature as a way to spark discussions. Organizers found that time-pressed judges and journalists were better able to deal with issues of concern by discussing real-life concerns and problems.

Size matters. The group first participated in a statewide joint meeting of approximately 200 judges, lawyers and journalists. The meeting became a gripe session. "Keep the group manageable," said Schulman. "When you get in excess of 40 people together you get a loss of communication, focus and concentration.

Keep it local. Discussions are held on a regional basis so participants can explore issues particular to their region. A forum in the Louisville Metro area is likely to focus on issues of access while a forum held in a rural part of the state may deal with the conflict between small-town conviviality and objective coverage.

Let it all hang out. Getting judges who rule on cases and the reporters who write about them to openly discuss issues sounds like a tall order. Organizers have placed individuals in the group who present stereotypical views of the other side to spark conversation. Another way to loosen lips is to ensure that conversations in the room are off the record. Participants in the Kentucky bench/media forums agree that if the press reports on the meetings they won't quote anyone by name without their consent. In addition, a moderator makes sure that a few high status individuals don't dominate the discussion.

Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Louisville, which helped organize the forums, there has been "a striking reduction in the issuance of gag orders" since the forums began.

The first round of forums will be completed this year, and Schulman said the group is considering several options for the future, including a second round of statewide forums or holding small brown bag sessions with journalists and judges across the state.

The group also is considering teaming with state universities to offer a program on bench/media relations to journalism students across the state.

Representatives of the media are buoyed by the progress that has occurred and want to make sure progress continues. Wolman said the AP is strongly encouraged by the effort in Kentucky and is working in other states to develop similar forums.

Kentucky may want to look to Massachusetts for ways to keep the dialogue going. In 1995, members of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and representatives of all areas of the state's courts convened a judiciary/media committee to improve communication between the two parties.

The 35-member committee, co-chaired by Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice John M. Greaney and Larry McDermott, publisher of the Springfield Union News and Sunday Republican, meets six times a year.

"The group discusses issues like general access to court proceedings and documents and inaccurate coverage and unfair criticism of judges," said Joan Kenney, public information officer for the Massachusetts courts. …