Judges and journalists often view each other warily. But on Tuesday, at the University of Arizona's Rogers College of Law in Tucson, they found a fair amount of common ground. It may be the camaraderie of the bunker, but there was consensus on two main points: traditional news coverage of the courts is declining rapidly as print and broadcast media retrench and retool; and blogs, twitters and whatever new media are looming around the corner, hold as much promise as danger in picking up the slack. One underlying premise was also refreshing; judges realize that the old maxim, "No news is good news" is no longer operative when it comes to the courts.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer set the tone at the beginning of the day by stating that the judiciary has "a very big stake in seeing that people get proper information" about the courts. Without that information and the understanding and support that hopefully result "it won't work," Breyer said. At the end of the day, U.S. District Court Judge D. Brock Hornby of the District of Maine lamented the decline of the "watchdog function" that the media play in covering courts. "Our courtrooms are empty," Hornby said. "We need the presence of someone like a journalist." From the journalism side, Gene Policinski, a former USA Today editor who is vice president and executive director of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, charted the demise of the court beat at most newspapers. Journalists and judges, he said, "need each other."
Possible solutions were discussed throughout the day, ranging from judges blogging to courts producing their own online summaries of decisions and even online video reports on their news of the day. Journalists recoiled a bit at the latter idea, worrying that if courts are "too successful," in Policinski's words, in producing their own news reports, then the news media might just surrender and turn over reporting on the courts to the courts themselves news by judicial press release, in other words. And judges displayed at least some reflexive reticence about being too "out there" in the public eye and violating their canons of ethics, rather than sticking to their knitting of deciding cases removed from the rough and tumble of the media and politics.
But overall, the judges seemed to embrace like it or not the notion that engaging and informing the public are now part of their job description. In the digital information age, the public expects all institutions to be transparent in multiple media, immediately and at all times, and courts are no exception. Some federal and state courts are already putting a lot out there all court documents, streamed audio of hearings, everything except what the judge ate for lunch and that trend is spreading. J. Rich Leonard, bankruptcy judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, described a remarkable and popular pilot project in his court that makes digital audio of bankruptcy hearings available online for a nominal fee.
The challenge for the news media is how to take advantage of that growing infrastructure of online court resources and turn it into news that goes beyond bulletin board reporting or reprinting press releases. The wave of citizen bloggers that was once envisaged as the way in which institutions like courts would be covered independently has not yet materialized in any big way. If the media don't get their act together, then the courts not usually viewed as cutting-edge in terms of technology might find their own ways of bypassing the media and communicating directly with the public. More on this topic in future posts.