Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Legal Journalism Today: Change or Die

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Legal Journalism Today: Change or Die

Article excerpt

Several years ago, I was a guest speaker for a media and law class at San Jose State University, volunteering my expertise as a legal journalist with a couple decades under my belt of covering courts and law. As I went through my usual dialogue, describing some of the newfound challenges of being a journalist in this brave new digital world, one of the students piped in about Twitter, which at the time was an emerging phenomenon that I frankly considered a mind-numbing threat to intelligent reporting with the shelf life of the Pet Rock (an obsolete cultural reference that can easily be Googled). This young student assured me that I needed to get plugged into Twitter, that it would help sell my "brand" of legal journalism and, as I recall vividly, that I would regret failing to jump on this Twitterverse bandwagon. I brushed off the idea, giving my reasons for moving in a different direction and assuring this group of young, aspiring journalists that this hired gun had no good use for Twitter. I finished up my speech, heading back to my office confident that I owned the proper, time-tested recipe for how to cover the very important institutions of the judiciary and justice system at large. Without Twitter, or its ilk.

That student, it turns out, was right. And I was wrong. Not because Twitter is such an indispensable tool for a legal journalist to succeed (it is important, but it's debatable how important). Or that it is the only digital tool we need to succeed to get that critical information about the latest ruling or trial out to the public (far from it). Instead, I had veered off base because the emergence of information portals such as Twitter demonstrates where we are in the evolution of legal

journalism in this country, indeed journalism generally, and that sticking to the hidebound ways of the past will come at a cost. Great coverage of the courts and law has always depended on depth and accuracy, and a devotion to understanding the complexity of the topic enough to turn around and explain it to a public that is hungry for legal news. But times have changed. People get their information from a constellation of sources. And Twitter was, and is, a big one. (1) So ignoring it, pretending it doesn't matter to a generation that very much believes it does matter, is a mistake. The San Jose State experience was a teaching moment for me. I needed to change, and not just by paying attention to our website or perhaps using a laptop in court instead of a notebook. As the symposium at the University of Missouri School of Law demonstrated in January, (2) we are in an unprecedented period of self-examination in our profession, and certainly among those of us left who specialize in covering the law as journalists. Some offered a bleak outlook, others were a bit more optimistic. But we all certainly agreed that the same-old, same-old just isn't going to fly as we move forward.

It remains important to understand the past, when it comes to covering courts and law, in order to understand what will come next, although it's risky business to go there without sounding nostalgic or, worse, like a journalistic relic. But those of us who have made a career out of legal journalism know that the roots of getting this right haven't really changed. Immersing yourself in a thorough understanding of the legal system. Plugging yourself into lawyers, judges, clerks, anyone involved in the vast universe we are required to cover and explain. Knowing the phrases (demurrer vs. summary judgment), pouring through those court records. Spending time in a courtroom, even if in some instances it fails to produce a story. It would seem to be stating the obvious that the best legal journalists have never been tethered to their desks. No amount of technological innovation will diminish the need to retain that irreplaceable human contact with the movers and shakers in the legal world. Too many editors, with little substantive reporting experience of their own, fail to understand the import of keeping this part of a legal journalist's arsenal. …

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