Experts Evaluate the Intersection Between the 'New Media' and Courts

Judges and legal experts debated the influence that the new media is having on the public's understanding of the court system.
Sept. 9, 2008
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.
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.

In the world of 24-hour cable news, blogs, online news, wikis, and other “new media,” the ability to produce timely, authoritative and comprehensive coverage becomes a complex endeavor.

A University of Arizona Rehnquist Center symposium held Tuesday explored that complexity and ways the new media is shaping the public's perception about the nation's justice system.

Toni Massaro, the James E. Rogers College of Law dean, said how and under what conditions “people bump upon knowledge, or not, is important.”

It is a topic of extreme importance – particularly with the rising popularity of citizen reporters, blogs, competitive around-the-clock coverage and the tremendous amount of unfiltered information scattered across the Internet.

Also, judges 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 center hosted the one-day symposium.

“Courts require the confidence of the public in order to function,” Rider said, adding that the confidence is compromised when inaccurate information is spread.

Judges, lawyers, legal scholars, journalists and others convened at the symposium to discuss these topics and ways that courts themselves are adapting to the accelerated news cycle. For instance, a number of courts are making transcripts available to reporters while others are beginning to use streaming video of live proceedings on their Web sites.

Gene Policinski, the vice present and executive director for The First Amendment Center and a blogger, said the world of the traditional reporter has changed rapidly in the past 40 years.

Today, newspapers rely more on the multimedia approach and experience greater competition for readers, he said. The court beat assignment doesn’t carry the clout it once did. Also, print publications are also in the midst of trying times, with publications across the nation offering buyouts and laying off staff in recent years.

“Change was happening all around us, and we didn’t realize it,” Policinski said.

We are at the right moment at the right topic and it’s the right topic,” he later added, also noting that while journalists are “better trained and more knowledgeable,” they do need a greater understanding of court proceedings.

That raises the question of content and access and ways that such a rush of information both benefits and compromises confidence in the justice system.

Some attending the symposium questioned whether the bloggers and citizen journalists were filling the need for more varied information and opinion or, because of their lack of traditional training, should be deemed less reliable or credible.

Of course, very sensitive situations exist such as jurors reading blogs during court proceedings or blatant errors about court proceedings circulating in the blogosphere, some of the attendees noted.

Though some are skeptical about the new media and especially blogs, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer said there exists “tremendous potential in getting across the message that might be oppressed.”

This is evidenced by an opening of the courts – so to speak – with increasing access to certain documents and proceedings.

Breyer, like others in attendance, agreed that a greater understanding of the courts would likely create more public support and a broader understanding of the justice system.

And while Breyer did not predict what will come of the new media, he said it can be “helpful.”

Of course, the new media does sometimes make news and information more difficult to track and to evaluate.

But Joan Biskupic, the U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for USA Today, said time will tell the truth.

Biskupic, one of the few U.S. Supreme Court correspondents left in the nation, said that while some may have serious concerns now about the pervasiveness of Web-based content that may not always be rooted in fact, the popularity of such sites and writers won’t last forever.

“We really shouldn’t worry about the Web,” Biskupic said, adding that journalists should remain true to the “primary mission,” which she said is to report in a truthful, agenda-free and authoritative way. She also said that it will be important to maintain the distinction between what is hard news and what the editorials say.

“It helps people to form judgments about what they are reading,” said Biskupic, who later added that “people will see that the blogs that offer authoritative and wise opinions will prevail.”