Journalists, Judges and Justice Vie in Coverage of Courts
Harper, Jennifer, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
The jury, it seems, is still out in the case of justice vs. journalism. Can a free press coexist with a fair trial?
Maybe, maybe not.
Cameras in the courtroom distill complex testimony into sound bites. Attorneys emulate actors, judges talk off the record. Journalists, meanwhile, trade objectivity for the lucrative glamour of "legal commentary." Meanwhile, many Americans get their entire sense of our legal system by its portrayal in the media.
"There's a huge amount of public attention on the courts now," said Robert Giles of the Media Studies Center in New York, which has just published "Covering the Courts," an analysis of the media's impact on the courtroom. The 125-page study includes comments and interviews with 21 lawyers, journalists and judges stuck in the middle.
"Journalists are taking a larger and larger role in the judicial process. They have a responsibility. Our study is a road map of the fundamentals," Mr. Giles said.
The imprint of the O.J. Simpson trials is everywhere.
And no wonder. The trials dragged on for 900 days, inspired 50 books, required 30 broadcast trailers and drew more news coverage than Bosnia, Tiananmen Square and the collapse of Soviet communism.
Veteran court reporter Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press was horrified by it all.
"Never in my 30 years of covering trials have I entered a courtroom with the objective of creating entertainment. Social history, yes; entertainment, no," she wrote.
Journalists who aspire to be the old-fashioned eyes and ears of the public must use "a careful eye to separate the spin from the substance."
Indeed, it takes a savvy but disciplined reporter to winnow legal points from the show biz of a high-profile trial, agreed Andrew Cohen, a lawyer who covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials for Fox News. …