Media coverage of suicide and the courts


The courts and the media are very different. They have different cultural expectations, deadlines, commercial imperatives, historical development, language and protocols. This page provides a basic overview of the media and the courts and explains why the courts are such a staple news source for journalists.


Why the media interest in courts?

Courts IconNews stories may be broadly categorised as routine, staged and spontaneous events.  Court reporting is generally routine news because it occurs on a predictable basis with regular timing, sources and venue. The courts have been described as ‘a feast of stories’, among other things.1

We try to find on a daily basis a sort of representative smattering of very different matters that are being handled from the Supreme Court, to the local, to all the many tribunals.
 
…a forum for human issues where ordinary people are seen in extraordinary circumstances.
 
Courts are extremely cost effective, protected, you’re unlikely to be sued … [they’re] cheap, quick and dirty. Courts turn out some really good stories.2


There are several reasons why court reporting is a staple for most media organisations3:

  • Unlike other rounds where the reporter has to seek out opposing points of view, courts provide these in their adversarial context. Generally speaking, reporters will get their stories from within the courtroom;
  • The relatively safe reporting environment afforded by the privilege of courts means that reporters can report and write stories relatively simply, as long as they are fair and balanced in their reporting and avoid legislative prohibitions;
  • Often crime and court stories involve themes of fear, horror or shock, and much of the information can be deeply personal and intimate, therefore ‘newsworthy’;
  • High-profile and interesting stories can often be planned ahead of time by thoroughly examining the court lists and having some knowledge of police charges.

What makes news?

Much of what goes on in court is not newsworthy – it is mundane and will not be of any interest to the media. In addition to this, because news space varies, what makes the news one day may not make it in the next.
 
Two key elements of court cases that make them particularly newsworthy are conflict and deviant behaviours, which both occur in abundance. Court cases will often incorporate these news values or themes if they are to become news stories. Other news values or themes include:

  • Prominence, high impact, controversy, protest, key decisions, violence, scandal, moral disorder, proximity, human interest and timeliness;
  • Immediacy, dramatisation, personalisation, simplification, titillation, non-conventionalism and novelty.

Any of these news values, themes or elements may be obviously located in a story, even before the court case begins. However, these elements may sometimes emerge as the court case develops and the journalist witnesses a development or shift in the case. A news angle may also become apparent half way through a court case, when a comment, witness, finding or piece of evidence is brought in.

The following table, adapted from the Australian Press Council report into newspapers in 2005, breaks down what makes news in a range of papers. It may come as no surprise that crime is the highest category of all categories of news, in all of the pages under analysis. 

Content analysis of Australian metropolitan & regional newspapers 2005

Content

% of All (2448)

% of page 1 (299)

% of Metro (1573)

% Regional (442)

% Sundays (435)

Crime

14.50

15.70

13.90

16.10

15.20

Federal politics

12.10

11.70

14.60

4.75

10.10

Entertainment

12.10

7.36

10.80

13.10

15.90

Accident/ Emergency

10.70

10.70

9.35

15.80

10.60

State politics

8.05

7.36

10.20

4.07

4.14

Other

49.91

46.77

40.69

45.49

42.53

                                                                                                            Source, Australian Press Council.4

What is a court round?

A journalist’s ‘round’ is the particular field they work in and report on. The round is intended to help the journalist develop a specialisation within the field, including greater knowledge and a range of key sources from which to draw. 

Courts are part of this rounds system. If the round system worked ideally, these reporters would all know the laws and restrictions pertaining to the courts. This is, however, not always the case. 

 

Who covers the court round?

The courts round is sometimes training ground for young reporters. They bring with them their general knowledge as well as what they have learned at university or in cadetship training. That is not to say that all court reporters are legal novices – some have law degrees or extended legal knowledge. Nevertheless, the range of expertise amongst court reporters can be huge, especially in cases where the ‘usual’ court reporter is absent and a less experienced colleague may cover courts in their stead.
 
This wide range of expertise, coupled with journalists’ often limited knowledge of complex issues such as mental health and suicide, can result in a severely restricted pool of knowledge to accurately cover coroners' findings, committal proceedings, bail applications, pleas and so on in court cases which deal with these issues.

 
Do journalists work together?

Court reporting tends to be somewhat different to other journalistic rounds in that reporters often cooperate with each other, even when they represent different media outlets. The regular contact between journalists at the courtroom means that they will often rely on each other to fill in material they miss, or for tips for a good story.
 
Nevertheless, competition amongst journalists exists in all rounds and courts are no different. Reporters will use a wide range of sources to find out what’s going on in courts, confirm information and investigate stories.


What types of media are more interested in the courts?

Print media have a long history of covering courts, sharing the courts’ media rooms and dedicating one reporter to the round. Radio and television on the other hand tend to send reporters along on a more ad-hoc basis, when a ‘good’ story is expected in court. Knowing what’s in a day’s court line-up will usually come from police stories (earlier arrests) and police tip-offs, as well as via other sources such as lawyers.
 
Print journalists often therefore have a great ‘ownership’ of the round that they nurture and cover systematically, which allows them to develop sources within the courts and often form positive working relationships (sources are outlined below).


How is the news story developed?

Courts IconChanges in technology have led to greater multiple-platform reporting, using online as well as traditional media. This means that one story can have several versions for a range of media which will be built up from earlier stories. It also means that the speed with which stories can be developed and released is greatly increased.
 
In one recent example, a reporter was able to send notification of a verdict in a case by text message from the courtroom, meaning that a story ‘brief’ was available on a newspaper’s website within minutes of the verdict, beating radio reports. That story was later expanded when the journalist wrote the details of what had happened in the proceedings, but this is a good example of how quickly news media can reach an audience.

The development of a news story will usually follow a set path where, once written and filed by the journalist, it is subedited for the print version of the paper (and/or the online version). At this point, the journalist usually has no control over the editing of their story. This can prove problematic in covering court stories because the story in its entirety can often provide context and important background which may, due to space, have to be reduced or removed.
 
To view a flowchart which shows the typical process in developing a courts story, please click here

 

What about headlines?

Headlines are also written by the subeditor, beyond the control of the court reporter. While they should reflect the story’s key point, these can sometimes be skewed toward a catchy phrase or word choice that is more sensational than the body of the story. It is worth remembering that journalists do not control this element of newspaper production, despite being the public face of the story.


Who are key sources of information?

Reporters rely heavily on sources as well as first-hand observation in court reporting. The most common sources are:

  • Lawyers – prosecutors and defence counsel;
  • The Police Media Unit, police stories;
  • Court staff – sheriffs, bailiffs, clerk of the court, judge’s associates;
  • Court lists from daily newspapers or the internet;
  • Informants or tip-offs; and
  • Other journalists in court and other media.

Since the early 1990s, an additional common source in many jurisdictions has been the Court Information Officer. Those jurisdictions without these officers have been noted to be at a disadvantage when it comes to court-media relations.
 
The issue of access to information and meeting media deadlines is crucial to getting a story right. In most cases, not providing information or making transcript costs prohibitive will not result in a story being abandoned. It is more likely that it will result in a story being run either incompletely or with inaccuracies. Assisting the media to gain access to accurate information is, therefore, key.


References


[1] Johnston, J. (2004). Communicating courts: an analysis of the changing interface between the courts and the media. Unpublished Ph. D thesis. Gold Coast,QLD: Griffith University.
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Australian Press Council (2006). The state of the news print media in Australia. Retrieved 22 November 2012 from http://www.presscouncil.org.au/document-search/state-of-news-print-media-2008/