Spreading the News

By Cushner, Quintin; Hartley, Roger et al. | Judicature, September/October 2009 | Go to article overview

Spreading the News


Cushner, Quintin, Hartley, Roger, Parker, Darrel, Judicature


Communicating with the MEDIA during high-profile trials

In a society in which each individual has but limited time and resources with which to observe at first han the operations of his government, he relies necessarily upon the press to bring him in convenient form the facts of those operations. Great responsibility is accordingly placed upon the news media to report fully and accurately the proceedings of government, and official records and documents open to the public are the basic data of governmental operations. Without the information provided by the press, most of us - and many of our repsentatives -would be unable to vote inintelligently or to register opinions on the administration of government generally. With respect to judicial proceedings in particular: the function of the press serves to guarantee the fairness of trials and to bring to bear the beneficial effect of public scrutiny upon the administration of justice.

- Justice Byron White

People often learn about American courts and the administration of justice through media coverage of highprofile trials. Providing speedy and accurate information to the media during a sensational trial can help create and image of the judicial branch that is as transparent and accountable us it is fair and independent. Maintaining a reputation for accountability and competence is essential to any organization that strives to serve the public, and is arguably more important for courts. The way trials are portrayed in the media can impact the public's perception of judges' and courts' abilities, to be fair and impartial, thus contributing to citizens' confidence in the judiciary. How trials are portrayed might also impact the jury pool tor future cases. JUIT commissioners rely on a positive impression of the court system to help attract jurors.

This article examines court-media relations in an age of new technology and a shifting and evolving media. After reviewing works on court-media relations, experiences during the Michael Jackson trial are analyzed to add to our knowledge of how trial court professionals can communicate more effectively with the media during high-profile cases.2

The media and high-profile trials

High-profile cotirt proceedings date to the irial of Socrates in 399 B.C. and in the United States to the Aaron Burr treason case of 1807. However, much of what has been written about the relationship between court professionals and the media has been published in the past 20 years.* This increase in scholarship was likely spurred not only by the growth of the court management profession, but also by the proliferation of new media outlets. If court professionals were not aware of the increased media interest in high-profile mais by 1995, then the case of People v. Simpson that year should certainly have sounded the alarm. The sensational trial of O.J. Simpson was covered by an unprecedented number of print and television reporters. News cable networks provided round-the-clock coverage, and suppiemen ted news coverage with commentary and opinion from expert legal panels. A sizeable percentage of the United States population watched as a jury acquitted the retired football star of murder.

After the Simpson verdict, coverage of high-profile trials continued, in both traditional and newer media. The popularization of the Internet led to a subsequent growth of websites dedicated to high-profile cases. There was also even TV re-creations of trials. Given this expansion in the number and type of outlets coveringhigh-profile trials, court professionals need to increasingly explore how they communicate with the media.

The relationship between court professionals and the media touches on issues as lofty as First Amendment law and as mundane as event planning. The general rules court professionals should follow in their relationship with the media remain the same no matter what form of communication is used: don't lie, return phone calls quickly, proactívely distribute all available information, and provide a judicial justification if certain information cannot be released. …

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