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Judges, journalists must find way to work together, panelists agree

By David Hudson
The Freedom Forum Online
Tom Chester

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Judges and journalists should take affirmative steps to ensure that they understand each other, said several panelists last week at the conference "News Media and the Law."

Co-sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association and the First Amendment Center, the Oct. 6 program featured two panels that examined the often uneasy relationship between judges, lawyers and reporters.

Moderated by John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, the panels discussed gag orders, sealed records, cameras in the courts, leaks, superficial coverage and other controversies likely to arise in media coverage of high-profile cases.

Although the discussions sparked some disagreement concerning the competence of the press in covering the courts and other issues, the panelists all seemed to agree that greater collaboration between the news media and members of the legal profession would be beneficial.

"We need more interaction between the press and the legal profession," said Thomas Brothers, a state trial judge in Nashville.

The two judges on the "Media and the Courts" panel, Gilbert S. Merritt of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Adolpho Birch of the Tennessee Supreme Court, agreed that the judiciary has a responsibility to keep its proceedings open to the public.

"The judiciary has an obligation to intelligently inform the public of what we do, because the public has very little understanding of what we do," said Merritt. "We are a public institution financed through tax dollars.

Russell Headrick

"The Constitution requires that records and proceedings of the judicial institution be open to the public," Merritt said.

"Without an independent judiciary willing to protect the First Amendment and the press against contrary public opinion, the First Amendment and its freedoms become less viable," he said.

"The independence of the federal judiciary, in turn, depends upon the public and is therefore dependent on the press which is the only translator to the public," Merritt said.

Two of the other panelists admitted that coverage of the courts, especially the federal courts, leaves something to be desired.

"The quality and experience of journalists covering the courts is usually pretty bad," said Kirk Loggins, a reporter who covers the state courts for The Tennessean of Nashville. "It is a disappointment to me that we don't cover the federal courts."

"If there is a court ruling that takes any time to read, it probably doesn't get read," Loggins said.

Tam Gordon, director of communications at the First Amendment Center and a former reporter for the Nashville Banner, agreed that coverage of federal courts is lacking. "At our paper, the training ground for new reporters was the federal courts."

The second panel — "When Lawyers Talk to Reporters" — was highlighted by disagreements between two attorneys on the panel and Tom Chester, deputy managing editor of The Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Russell Headrick, a well-known media-law attorney from Memphis, said that television coverage of courts has "not been helpful" and has been "more about entertainment than information."

"Reporters are not neutral," said Tennessee Solicitor General Michael Moore. "They usually have an agenda."

"Of course press coverage of the courts is going to be somewhat superficial," said Chester. "We can't be in every single courtroom and there are thousands and thousands of cases."

Michael Moore

Headrick and Moore said that most lawyers were wary to speak to the press for fear that they would be misquoted.

But Chester said that fear was most often a sign of a lawyer's discomfort with seeing his or her own comments in print.

"It bothers me that they (the lawyers) would say that the press as a general rule garbles lawyers' comments and misquotes them," he said. "Oftentimes, lawyers are unhappy with the press simply because they don't like their own comments or quotes when they read them in the paper."

Seigenthaler concluded the discussion by saying the "more we creep [toward] closing proceedings in judicial matters, the more rights we are giving away."


Judges, journalists get down to brass tacks of communication

First Amendment Center conference at Northwestern University probes problems of access, accuracy, trust in courtroom news coverage. 11.10.00

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