Vol. 9 No. 11 (November 1999) pp. 522-526.
COVERING THE COURTS: A HANDBOOK FOR JOURNALISTS by S. L. Alexander. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc. 184 pp. Cloth $49.00. Paper $29.50.
Reviewed by Jennifer A. Segal, Department of Political Science, The University of Kentucky.
As the title indicates, COVERING THE COURTS: A HANDBOOK FOR JOURNALISTS is written for journalists who report on the judiciary. It contains information about procedures, rules, and case law that journalists should know as they cover the courts, and it provides a number of helpful hints about how journalists should approach lawyers, judges, and other court participants to increase the likelihood of getting an interesting and accurate story. As someone who cares a great deal about the nature of court reporting, I am happy to see Alexander's effort to provide a guide such as this one. Importantly, however, this book has a number of weaknesses that limit its utility for journalists covering the courts.
In COVERING THE COURTS, Alexander (who has a Ph.D. in communications law) recognizes a primary component of the difficulty in reporting on American courts -- most journalists, even those with court beat experience, have little knowledge about court procedures and actors. As a primary example of this problem, she points to the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson, which she describes as having a "circus atmosphere" facilitated largely by a news media composed of reporters with little if any training in the law or courtroom procedure. Alexander's handbook represents an effort to rectify this problem among reporters and to promote more knowledgeable, careful, and respectful coverage of court-related activities. To this end, the introductory chapter of the book presents an overview of several U.S. Supreme Court cases that have influenced journalists' ability to report on courts. Additionally, Alexander establishes a set of goals for journalists to facilitate their ability to provide the public with a more complete understanding of judicial administration. She encourages journalists to gain a better understanding of judicial processes, to follow cases through their various stages for more complete and thorough coverage, to become familiar with the guidelines about cameras in courtrooms, and to learn from the experiences and advice of other journalists who have struggled with the court beat. Overall, she suggests, "the goal of the journalist ... is to present accurate coverage with a minimum of disruption to the unique process of judicial administration under the US Constitution..." (p. 23).
To help journalists understand judicial processes, Alexander devotes six of ten chapters to criminal procedure and cases (Chapters 3, 5, 6 and 7) and to civil procedure and civil trials (Chapters 4 and 8). Together, these chapters provide elementary knowledge about the various stages and actors involved in trials, give definitions of legal and judicial terminology, and offer a number of helpful organizational charts of different aspects of the judicial process. The
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last two chapters of the handbook provide additional information for court reporters. Chapter 9 focuses on cameras in courtrooms and the various efforts to allow live coverage of trials. Chapter 10 instructs journalists on the motivations of lawyers and judges, and how to interact with these court officers to increase the accuracy and thoroughness of their reports; moreover, it suggests that journalists might report on topics beyond the court room itself like the caseloads of public defenders, the win-loss records of prosecuting and defense attorneys, and judicial elections ("enterprise" stories). Finally, Alexander includes a set of appendices
that provide several documents relevant to media coverage of the courts (e.g. Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and the ABA Standards for Criminal Justice, Fair Trial and Free Press) and a glossary of basic legal and judicial terms.
By writing this book, Alexander has taken a step toward bridging the gap between the media and the judiciary -- it is likely that this handbook will provide journalists with a stronger foundation of knowledge than most currently have, and therefore an increased ability to more accurately and thoroughly cover the courts.
Nevertheless, COVERING THE COURTS suffers from a number of shortcomings. Because this book is a handbook designed for a very particular audience, the following comments are related to the limitations of the handbook for journalists.
Although many journalists will find Alexander's presentation of information about facts and procedures of the courts helpful, they will also find that this information is not presented as clearly as it could be. There are a number of places throughout the book where the flow of the discussion is disjointed. In part, this is a function of Alexander's use of quotations and excerpts of others' work that she does not tie together or put into context as well as she could. The most obvious examples of this include the discussion about judges in criminal trials (pp. 68-9), the passage on post trial activity (p. 85), part of the discussion of civil trials (p. 90), and
the presentation of journalists' impressions of lawyers (pp. 106-7) and judges' impressions of journalists (p. 114).
This reduced clarity also appears to be a function of the many hints or suggestions that Alexander includes in the text (set off from the text by asterisks and italicized font). While the presentation of these hints is not particularly problematic, the substance of some of the hints themselves is distracting and, in many cases, seems rather basic and even irrelevant. For instance, in her discussion of how journalists should deal with lawyers at trial, Alexander suggests, "Try to avoid telling lawyer jokes. (Although you may find lawyers eager to share their favorites with you: do not laugh too loudly!)" (p. 71). Also, she suggests, "If you are interviewing participants in a criminal trial after a verdict is announced, do not forget to consider the emotional states of all those personally involved. Do not ask anyone
'How do you feel?' A victim or family member or friend will have an emotional reaction to the verdict, as will the defendant's loved ones, particularly if the defendant is convicted" (p. 79). It is surprising, and more than a little disconcerting, that journalists need to be reminded to avoid insulting lawyers in their presence and to be sensitive during the post verdict stage of a criminal trial -- but even if such suggestions are necessary, their presentation in the handbook breaks the flow of the more
general discussion of criminal
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Ultimately, it is difficult to follow Alexander's discussion because she does not use a theme to organize the handbook. Alexander does state at the beginning of the book that her goal is to teach journalists how to cover the courts "in order to provide the public with a more complete understanding of the process of judicial administration." (p. 10). And, she briefly mentions this public-oriented theme on a few other occasions; for example, she explains that, "Journalists serve as the conduit for information available to the public, so the journalist has an obligation to make every attempt to provide the fullest possible coverage of the judicial system" (p. 57) and that journalists must keep in mind the goal of "enhancing public understanding without interfering with the process of judicial administration" (p. 102). However, she does not use this theme to connect her thoughts; instead, it appears somewhat haphazardly throughout the book. In the end, Alexander's message is not as clear as it could be, which is problematic for journalists who are trying to learn about the court system and their role in covering it.
There is a second important problem for journalists who would use this handbook as a primary source of court-related information. Even though it does address many important topics related to criminal and civil procedure, it fails to examine some of the most integral elements of the relationship between the media and courts. For instance, the First and Sixth Amendments are both mentioned on a few occasions, but are not discussed in any detail; additionally, there are some significant concepts, like due process of law (p. 29), that are mentioned only in passing. In a book designed to teach journalists how to cover the courts, the absence of a careful and thorough discussion of these subjects is problematic. Additionally, very little attention is given to the coverage of civil courts, despite their frequency
and potential significance for law and society, Alexander spends only two of ten chapters and a total of 10 (of 184) pages to advising journalists how to cover civil trials. Certainly, a large part of the appeal of handbooks is their brevity, but this handbook is dramatically weakened by the lack of attention to these subjects. In future editions of this book, Alexander might rewrite the first chapter ("The Judicial System," which is currently a brief description of several notable Supreme Court cases that have influenced the ability of the media to cover trials) so that this discussion of cases is presented more succinctly and in the context of a more detailed examination of relevant constitutional amendments and legal concepts. As it currently reads, a novice court reporter (the typical reader of this handbook) will
have a great deal of difficulty discerning the goal and understanding the complexity of the relationship. Also, greater attention to the topic of civil procedure and trials should be included the next editions of this book.
Finally, and perhaps the most important problem I see for journalists who use this handbook, is that Alexander's perspective is exclusively pro-journalist. It is not the bias, per se, that is troublesome. Indeed, it is appropriate that a handbook designed for journalists will emphasize their interests. However, it does not seem reasonable to educate and advise journalists on how to cover the courts without any competing perspectives or analysis. This is particularly true when the stated goal for journalists is to be a conduit between the American public and judicial institutions, and to balance their own interests against the interests of those involved in the
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administration of justice. Establishing a context that includes the interests and goals of the courts and court participants is necessary. How can journalists possibly do an adequate job fulfilling this role without some minimal understanding and perspective on the people and institutions with which they have to work? Yet, for example, when she talks about cameras in the courtroom (which she does in several places throughout the book), Alexander always presents the issue from the perspective of the media, suggesting that there is no good reason to exclude cameras. By quoting a few journalists and former jurors and citing a few studies that back up her claim, she states that trials are not affected by presence of cameras (p.22). Anyone who reads this discussion of cameras in courtrooms is likely to have the impression that there is no (or at least very little) debate about the issue - yet, this is not an accurate representation of the issue. Although it is reasonable for Alexander to express her bias and to emphasize her view in the handbook, it is not obvious how journalists, being instructed about their role in the administration of justice for the first time, benefit from learning that there is only a single perspective and a "right" answer to the question of cameras.
Moreover, and related, are elements of the handbook that suggest Alexander's is, at least in part, a guide that instructs journalists on how to work the system to get the story. Although it is true that a journalist's job is to get stories, doing so with an understanding of and respect for the rules and motivations of the justice system should be encouraged. Although this seems to be Alexander's purpose in the handbook, there are several places in the criminal trial chapters, for example, where she seems to suggest methods by which reporters can get around decisions made by judges to get the story. So, in a description of public records and the possibility
that such records may sometimes be removed from public viewing by a judge's order, Alexander suggests a way for reporters to access and use the information anyway. "[I]t might be a good idea for you to take notes in case the material is subsequently sealed. Particularly useful are names andaddresses mentioned . . ." (p. 58). There is no doubt that this information would contribute to a good story, and certainly a journalist could defend himself or herself by arguing that the public has the right to know it. But if the journalist does not know that a judge may have made such a decision to protect someone or something involved in the process, then the journalist is missing very important information that will help guide his or her decision about whether to go forward with the story.
Perhaps a clearer example can be found a few pages later when Alexander suggests in the context of arraignments, indictments and preliminary hearings
that, "These early pre-trial actions are a good place for you to talk to families of suspects and victims in a criminal case - later their lawyers may advise them not to talk to members of the press" (p. 61). Again, this suggestion is not provided in the context of a larger discussion of why lawyers might advise their clients not to talk, why it might not be in the interest of these individuals, nor in the interest of society more generally, for journalists to be asking questions that later might jeopardize the
quality of justice in a particular case. This is not to argue that Alexander should not provide such hints to her readers - only that she should do so in the context of a more complex and thorough discussion of the issues involved in the choices journalists make when they seek a story. Perhaps future editions of the handbook could include more of this type of
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information and perspective.
This last point provides a good segue into a related and final comment about COVERING THE COURTS. As noted earlier, Alexander does acknowledge that
the role of journalists is to inform the American public, but she does not emphasize this theme as strongly or as consistently as she might. An examination of the role of the media, and the relationship between the media and the courts, should begin by recognizing that both institutions are integral parts of democratic society. Their primary purpose is to facilitate democracy, not to promote or protect their own autonomy or "rights". So, the media provide democratic citizens with information about their government and about politics that is free of government control. To suggest that the media has its own special and protected perspective, as Alexander seems to do at times, is not entirely accurate. Additionally, to treat the interaction between the courts and the media as inherently adversarial ("us versus
them"), as Alexander also does on occasion, is inappropriate. Not only do both messages overlook the common purpose of each institution, but also they likely perpetuate communication difficulties between the two institutions. This seems contrary to the goal of Alexander's book. Even with the legitimate purpose of teaching one of these institutions (the media, in this case) how to fulfill its goals in relation to the other institution (the courts), I think any book of this kind should recognize that the problems and the solutions associated with this relationship are complicated. Alexander's book would be strengthened enormously if it included more discussion of this kind.
As I stated at the beginning of this review, I am encouraged by the efforts Alexander has made in her handbook. There are a number of obstacles to thorough and accurate reporting of American courts, some of which stem from the courts, and others that stem from journalism. Alexander's handbook makes a worthwhile attempt to overcome a primary difficulty faced by journalists - their lack of information about court procedures and participants. Although I think that the handbook is weakened to some degree by the shortcomings that I have discussed in this review, I also believe that each of them is surmountable. My hope is that a future edition of this handbook may be an even better source of information and guidance for journalists who cover the courts.