[O]verall . . . judges seem[] 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.

So writes Tony Mauro in Courts and the New Media (The Legal Times, Sept. 10, 2008)

– continued –

Another article, Legal Journalism at the Crossroads, appearing last week in the D.C. Bar’s online newsletter, questions:

Who will tell the public the story of the American legal system? Increasingly, it seems it’s the legal system itself, or more specifically, the players within the system—the courts, law firms, local bar associations, specialized legal news publishers, lawyers, and law professors. The days are waning for in-depth coverage of the courts by the mainstream news media. What has replaced it is an intriguing if confusing mix of law-related Web sites, publications, podcasts, and blogs, many of which are coming from outside of journalism, and all of which are contributing to a new definition of what constitutes legal news in America.

“I’m not saying we’re at this point yet, but I think there is some danger in having the legal system practically ignored by the mainstream media and covered exclusively by organizations that have a vested interest in the system and the result,” says Mark Obbie, director of the Carnegie Legal Reporting Program at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

The article also observes, “Today’s reporting on the legal system, and especially the courts, is frequently filtered through sophisticated media platforms, such as . . . daring innovators and citizen journalists who slap a masthead on a Web site and call it legal news.”

Sounds good to me.

And, on Tuesday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer gave the opening remarks during the UA James E. Rogers College of Law’s New Media and the Courts symposium.

It is a topic of extreme importance – particularly with the rising popularity of citizen reporters, blogs . . . and the tremendous amount of unfiltered information scattered across the Internet1 . . . [J]udges and scholars are increasingly concerned about ways to inform the public with reliable information about the court system, said Sally Rider, director of the Rehnquist Center housed in the College of Law.

The symposium summary claimed that, “Though some are skeptical about the new media and especially blogs, there exists “tremendous potential in getting across the message that might be oppressed” Id.

The court beat assignment doesn’t carry the clout it once did.

According to Gene Policinski, the vice present and executive director for The First Amendment Center and a blogger, the world of the traditional reporter has changed rapidly in the past 40 years and the court beat assignment doesn’t carry the clout it once did. (click here).

I suspect that bloggers labor under constraints that bloggers aren’t bound by. These constraints include their obligation to the appearance of objectivity, limitations on word count and –as ABC News’s Vic Walter explained to me– a need to dumb down the message to the lowest common denominator of a broad audience.

Robert Boczkiewicz, a Reuters reporter who covers the federal courts in the Tenth Circuit, corroborated many of the symposium’s findings: “In the past at least couple of years,” Boczkiewicz recalled, “the amount of coverage of the federal courts in Colorado has gotten less news coverage. The primary reason for that is the cutback in the level of staffing of several news organizations that have traditionally given more attention to the federal courts.” Boczkiewicz also lamented that some new media legal reporters have the luxury to spend weeks on one article, while the few remaining court-beat reporters are “lucky to have a few hours to spend on one article.”

Indeed, I’d wager that traditional news outlets have, as the author of Legal Journalism at the Crossroads implies, downsized because of the alternative fora. However, I find it laudible that the public now has access to a much more comprehensive (`though sometimes subjective) coverage of law-related issues from alternative journalists including, as examples, Howard Bashman, Evan Schaeffer, William Bedsworth, Mike Frisch, and Minnesota’s Burt Hanson.  And, to be candid, most of these sources have no ax to grind; they report news and judicial decisions with expertise and insights that traditional journalists simply don’t have.

Further Reading

1 See, e.g, Mark Cohen, Judges wary of the ‘unshaven blogger’ (Minnesota Lawyer Blog 02.26.2008) (“[T]he pernicious blogger…has struck fear deep into the hearts of some of the state’s judiciary. One of the judges’ concerns I have heard raised about cameras in the courtroom is the specter of the ‘unshaven blogger’ coming in with cell phone camera at the ready. Apparently the judges are worried about being made to look sinister or downright ridiculous by a slip of the tongue or out-of-context snippet of dialogue winding up as a video posted on a blog or YouTube”); and see Russ Bleemer, Judges told to ignore rights in abuse TROs, 140 N.J.L.Rev. 281, 294-95 (1995) (judge discussing judges’ collective fears of being “tomorrow’s headlines”)