Crime and the media go together like peanut butter and jelly. Laugh, but it’s true. It’s almost like they need one another to exist to their fullest potential. The news without a good crime story feels incomplete. On second thought, the media needs to report on crime more than the criminals care to have their cases blasted in the press. Nevertheless, this is a bit of what I have learned about the interesting relationship between the two:
“If it bleeds, it leads”
Open your local newspaper, or regional paper, or even national publication. Actually, you do not even have to open it past the front page on most days to see that the headlines on the front cover usually deal with a crime-related story. Crime stories grab readers attention as they are usually events that are out of the norm and describe the impact on the victims of the alleged criminal act. Getting more readers’ attention usually translates into more sales for the media company. Pretty simple formula.
Personally, I do not too much weight to articles and/or news stories on TV when they report upon a story the day it took place. These stories are often inaccurate and sensationalized due to the chaos or high emotions surrounding the event.
I start to pay attention once the matter gets inside a courtroom.
Once the trial proper begins, this is when and where you can start sifting through what is fact and what is fiction. Here, the witnesses give their sworn testimony and are subject to cross-examination. There are a lot of eyes focused on deciphering what is likely to be truth ie: the judge, 12 members of the jury, crown prosecutors, defence counsel, and of course the friends and/or family of the victims to the alleged crime. It can be a dramatic experience as the trial’s process sifts it’s way to the truth of what occurred many months prior.
Of course, inside that courtroom are likely to be court reporters, too. Sometimes they arrive in your courtroom by chance after scouring the daily courtlists looking for a ‘juicy’ story, or sometimes they have had the start of your client’s trial marked in their calendars for many months, as it was one of those events that “bled and led” months ago.
In my career as a criminal lawyer, I’ve come to know many of Vancouver’s courtroom reporters – and I like most of them. But it wasn’t always that way. When I first started practicing a few years ago and I had a reporter inside my courtroom, I’d too often get all hot & bothered if I didn’t agree with how a reporter wrote about the evidence that was heard in court that day. I’d fire off an email, call into the newsroom, or simply pull the reporter aside the next time I saw him/her and let them know where I thought they went wrong in their writing. However, I found that such an approach was quite exhausting and only added to my already stressful job. In short, I stopped worrying about what courtroom reporters wrote because 1) they are going to write what they want anyways, and 2) they are writing for a newspaper for an objective in mind – selling more newspapers.
What does surprise me, still to this day, is how little formal legal training many courtroom reporters have. Much of it becomes apparent in their writings, as they misinterpret various technical motions, weight of particular witness’s evidence, and various Orders from the judge prior to a verdict. I really do think that a formal legal education, in combination with journalism training, would make the best courtroom reporter. In a perfect world I guess.
The manner and speed in which reporters get their stories out to the public has changed incredibly. Not only are there massive satellite trucks parked outside the courthouse for the ‘major’ trials so that information can be relayed straight to your TV for the noon and six o’clock news, but also more judges are permitting the use of Twitter in the courtroom, which I find to be a very fascinating tool. Yet has Canada’s criminal justice system permitted cameras inside of courtrooms for trial – and I hope it remains that way. If cameras were permitted, it could affect the manner in which a vulnerable witnesses gives evidence, if s/he knows that there are many more eyes watching the trial from the comforts of their living rooms. I also know many reporters have arguments for cameras in courtrooms.
One thing I do know which I have learned in my few years of practice is be careful what you say to the media when you are asked for comment. Sometimes it is not in your client’s best interest, or your own interest to speak to the media prior to the verdict in a criminal matter. I have been misquoted before, and that has reallybothered me.
My practice today is that when I am asked by a reporter for a comment, I often say”email me your questions and I will happily answer them”. This way there is a record of what is said, and it also provides myself with some time for a ‘sober second thought’ before answering. I’ve even engaged in Q&A sessions over Twitter with some reporters, which was a positive experience, too.
The media and criminal justice system are always going to be intertwined. They don’t teach you deal with the press in law school, that’s for sure. These are just some things I’ve learned along the way after a few years of practicing law. And in law school, they don’t teach you how to write blogs. Sorry if there are grammatical errors. 😉