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COM 365/665: Journalists, the Courts, and the Law Ron Bishop, Ph.D. Department of Communication Drexel University.

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Presentation on theme: "COM 365/665: Journalists, the Courts, and the Law Ron Bishop, Ph.D. Department of Communication Drexel University."— Presentation transcript:

1 COM 365/665: Journalists, the Courts, and the Law Ron Bishop, Ph.D. Department of Communication Drexel University

2 Tendencies in Current Coverage The “Crime of the Century” tendency, not to be confused with the “Trial of the Century” tendency. Blowing procedural happenings way out of proportion. “Parachuting” in to cover a trial as opposed to regular courthouse coverage. Turning every confirmation hearing into a political litmus test based on someone’s paper trail.

3 Tendencies in Current Coverage Stoking the “originalist v. living document” fight over the U.S. Constitution. Focusing on the deep pockets and huge verdicts. Making it seem we’re super-litigious. Ignoring cases that can’t be made sensational. And then there’s Nancy Grace…

4 Tendencies in Current Coverage


6 The U.S. Legal System Predictable and orderly A contest of adversaries Operates hierarchically The most compelling search is the search for authority. Procedure is crucial, often decisive. Precedent controls Ideas from outside the law find their way in. Suits are self-contained.

7 Conflicting Philosophies The journalist can’t always take time to get to know subject before writing. The lawyer won’t risk letting the journalist draw quick conclusions. The journalist often tells a story by moving from most significant to least significant – and by, well, telling a story. The lawyer builds a case the other way around.

8 Conflicting Philosophies The journalist wants to have immediate impact on the audience. The lawyer wants a well thought-out decision from the courts, one that usually comes after a significant chunk of time. The journalist looks for the novel. The lawyer builds a case on the familiar. The journalist is fascinated by the illogical. The lawyer tempers emotions with logic.

9 Thoughts on Covering Courts It’s a game, with both sides doing all they can to win. Don’t be thrown by the symbolism, the grandeur, the robes. Never put faith in a lawyer until you know him or her well. A judge’s word may be law, but it’s not gospel. Truth and justice do not always prevail.

10 Thoughts on Covering Courts Two main sources: records and people. Learn the language, follow the process, chart the cases, talk to attorneys, check earlier coverage. Watch out for the media-savvy, politically ambitious attorneys and image-obsessed judges. ALWAYS get to know bailiffs, marshals, clerks, and secretaries.

11 It’s Public Property In Craig v. Harney (1947), the Supreme Court says what happens in court is public property. Courts can’t censor or edit what goes on in cases brought before them. No limit on the reporter’s obligation to uncover and report on what’s going on, whether the case is closed or open. Recognize, though, that there are limits: family court cases, for example, or some civil cases. Criminal cases are always our business – usually revolve around a violation of a law designed to protect us.

12 The Judicial System 52, actually. Federal, state, municipal/local. 13 U.S. Courts of Appeal, 94 federal district courts. Case movement: usually trial, then appellate. Courts interpret the law (legislatures make it, executive branch enforces it). On appeal, no new facts are gathered. Terms to know: affirms, overturns, remands, removes

13 Civil v. Criminal Civil actions are initiated by an individual, often against another individual or organization for damages. Criminal actions are brought by the government on our behalf (“the people”) for violation of a criminal statute.

14 One State’s Court Structure

15 And Another’s (Georgia)…

16 Closer to home…

17 Our Federal Courts


19 Telling the Players…

20 Captions and Citations Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925)

21 Parts of an Opinion Author (the judge) Facts of the Case Law of the Case Disposition (decision) Concurring/dissenting opinions

22 Look for the following… A careful understanding of the facts. An understanding of the arguments. An understanding of the result and reasoning Possible impact of the decision.

23 What’s a Docket?

24 At the High Court… Textualism: If the Constitution didn’t explicitly create a right, it doesn’t exist; its meaning was set for all time when it was created. Originalism: The Constitution has to be interpreted as they were understood by the Framers Unenumerated Rights: Even if a right didn’t appear, judges can draw on implications of Constitutional provisions, prior decisions, and our evolution as a society to expand our liberties.

25 At the High Court… “If we cannot share every intellectual assumption that formed the minds of those who framed the charter, we can still address the constitutional uncertainties the way they must have envisioned, but relying on reason, respecting all the words the Framers wrote, by facing facts, and by seeking to understand their meaning for living people. ” - Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter - Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter

26 Basics of a Civil Case Plaintiff selects correct jurisdiction. Files a complaint which includes claims and damages sought. Defendant served with summons; has to answer by set deadline. Depositions are taken. Pre-trial conference held. At trial, arguments heard from both sides. Judge instructs the jury.

27 Basics of a Civil Case Jury deliberates, returns with a verdict. Judge enters a judgment. Appeal follows if one side isn’t happy.

28 My Civil Case Story Who sued; who’s being sued; when the suit was filed. All the parties to the suit. What caused the plaintiff to sue? Explanation of damages sought. Brief look at precedent; could this case lead to a landmark decision? Defendant’s answer (if filed). Possibility of settlement? Trial date set?

29 My Civil Case Story Attribute carefully: “According to the complaint filed by Dr. Zachary Smith, the Jupiter 2’s crew was a rowdy, inefficient bunch…” Comments from attorneys to explain their filings; include name/location of firm, firm specialty. Keep the legal-speak and chronology to a minimum; quote carefully from documents. How has court/judge ruled on cases like this in the past?

30 Complaint Story Members of a Phoenix family critically injured May 10 by a natural gas explosion in their apartment have filed a $92 million suit in Maricopa County Superior Court. Georgia Crawley filed suit May 20, claiming the explosion that ripped through her apartment a 6565 N. 17 th Street was caused by a deteriorating gas delivery line. She contends Arizona Public Service Co. knew about the problem, but failed to correct it.

31 Motion to Dismiss Story The nation’s largest snow globe maker Monday moved to dismiss a $15 million lawsuit by a former engineer who claims he was fired in 2008 because he was too old. The attorney for BriCol, Inc., Susan Whitehall, argued in documents filed in Philadelphia federal court that Nick Sullivan was fired for subpar performance, not because of his age.

32 Motion to Dismiss Story Sullivan claims a BriCol executive told him he did not fit the young, aggressive image the company is cultivating. Sullivan, 60, was replaced by Ernest Allen, 28. In his complaint, filed December 28, Sullivan argues his termination violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Whitehall said in an interview on Tuesday that Sullivan was fired “because his performance had deteriorated steadily.”

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