Big legal showdowns between the press and courts often draw attention, as news organizations battle for the right to cover hearings and trials, for access to court records, and to be allowed to take cameras into the courtroom.
These battles are important, indeed vital, to making sure that the courts are accountable to the public and that justice is being fairly dispensed.
But the meat and potatoes of reporting on what’s happening in the legal system is achieved not by filing motions, but by actually sending reporters into courts to watch what’s happening. There is a lot of vital news happening in our courts today that is simply not being covered.
As a reporter who has covered courts for more than two decades, it’s my distinct impression that nuts-and-bolts reporting on the courts has taken a huge hit in the current economic climate.
Newspapers that used to have a reporter in every courthouse in their communities, are now lucky to have a single reporter covering the dozen or so courts in their coverage zone. Some papers used to try to cover every murder trial in their region.
Policies like that seem to have fallen by the wayside.
Here are a few examples:
- Four years ago, the St. Louis Post Dispatch had five reporters covering courts in their area. Now, it has the equivalent of about three.
- The News Journal of of Wilmington, Del. used to have a reporter for state courts and another for federal. Now, one reporter covers both-
- A reporter for a Midwestern daily newspaper says she has been discouraged from reporting on preliminary hearings or guilty pleas in a number of major cases because of staffing shortages.
A Chinese espionage trial I covered on and off for the New York Sun a few years back in California was deemed so important by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), that the FBI hired an extra court reporter to provide a near-real-time transcript to its headquarters in Washington.
However, the case drew only occasional attention from the Associated Press and the local newspapers, whose reporters were juggling many beats and even more stories. (After a six-week trial, a jury found the defendant guilty of being an unregistered agent for China. He got a 24-year sentence.)
In a few high-profile cases, radio and TV stations and networks show up at the courthouse. But on most days, they’re elsewhere.
Admittedly, these examples and my overall impressions are anecdotal. And even though I’m firmly convinced there are fewer reporters out there covering justice and the courts, it’s hard to say coverage of the legal system has been hit harder than other beats.
At some newspapers, staffing levels have dropped so precipitously that a lot of beats have been hurt. But I have the sense that—except in the highest profile cases—court coverage has been deemed less sexy than say, that of gadgets or health.
Some unusual efforts are underway to address the perceived decline in legal coverage. The Tennessean in Nashville is allowing Vanderbilt University students assigned to a special program handle at least some of the newspaper’s coverage of the federal courts.
"We clearly don't have the staff that we had two or three years ago,” Tennessean executive editor Maria De Varenne told the Associated Press last month.
“We cover courts, but we don't have somebody covering federal courts every day. This will allow us that opportunity."
There are some bright spots out there.
Bloomberg, Law360 and Reuters have all stepped up their coverage of the legal system, which is good news—particularly for those of us who do that kind of reporting. But much of the Bloomberg and Law360 coverage goes behind pay walls and tends to focus on cases of national or business significance, not necessarily the meat and potatoes of the criminal justice system.
This decline in reporting on the courts often makes me wonder if, amidst all the battles for access, we sometimes lose perspective on what’s really limiting the news getting to the public.
The truth is that in this day and age many reporters wouldn’t have any idea if they’re entitled to cover jury selection or copy a court exhibit because they’ve never tried, or been allowed to try.
We need to remain vigilant about secrecy in the courts and the natural tendencies of various players in the court system to hide inconvenient facts and dispense justice behind closed doors.
But the phenomenon most responsible for obscuring the public’s view of the legal system at the moment isn’t somebody blocking reporters from getting though the courtroom doors.
It’s the fact that so many news outlets aren’t even bothering to try.
Gerstein covers the White House, the Justice Department and the courts for POLITICO. This column is adapted from remarks he delivered Sept. 27 in Washington, D.C., while accepting a First Amendment Award from the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press. He welcomes comments from readers.