November 1st, 2009 20:07 EST
What is a Journalist's Role When Covering a Jury Trial?
Scrutiny by news reporters of jury trials gives the public added assurance that the judicial system is working fairly. Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, a national organization based in Washington, D.C., and affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He covered jury trials for the St. Louis (Missouri) Post-Dispatch newspaper and later wrote about criminal justice for the news magazine U.S. News & World Report. This article appears in the July 2009 issue of eJournal USA, "Anatomy of a Jury Trial."
By Ted Gest
Most legal disputes in the United States are settled without the need for a trial, but the ones that involve juries can be among the most fascinating and unpredictable. The American tradition of open trials permits the public to judge whether the government is protecting its citizens by bringing charges with sufficient evidence against those suspected of crimes, and not by accusing innocent people.
The news media serve as the public`s eyes and ears at trial. Even in places that allow trials to be televised, news stories include important information about a case`s background, the legal strategy of both sides, and potential witnesses and other evidence.
In a case that gets wide attention, a journalist`s role starts well before jury selection. Many stories will have been published or broadcast, and potential jurors will be asked if they have seen them. Judges who anticipate media coverage may ask reporters to withhold "advance" stories about a trial that might contain information that would tend to bias juries.
The response by reporters to such a request may depend on how they view the case. Some cases have generated so much interest that a news organization decides that it must do a story about how the trial is likely to evolve. Or journalists may agree among themselves to defer stories until a jury can be chosen.
It is only in the few most celebrated cases that court reporters pay close attention to jury selection. In some, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty; observers look for clues on how many potential jurors object to executions generally.
Once the jury is seated, a reporter typically covers the trial just like any other case, deciding what evidence is worth mentioning in that day`s story. Jurors normally aren`t mentioned in day-to-day coverage. In some places, jurors may ask questions during the trial. Journalists take note to see if there is any clue as to which way the jurors may be leaning.
Journalists might influence juries in unusual ways. John Painter Jr., who covered courts for the Oregonian, a daily newspaper in Portland, Oregon, noticed jurors "surreptitiously watching me and taking notes when I took notes." He concluded that jurors believed he knew what was important and might have put greater emphasis on testimony he recorded. He decided not to sit in jurors` line of sight to avoid causing bias.
Jurors provide the climax to most trials when they announce the verdict, but that result rarely sheds light on whatever drama might have been involved in the closed-door deliberations. Some judges, knowing of intense media interest, arrange for jurors to speak to journalists in press-conference fashion after a trial. Reporters are able to ask questions without resorting to tracking jurors down in their homes or offices, which some jurors might regard as harassment.
Other courts try to prevent journalist-juror contact. Some courts use anonymous juries, meaning that jurors are identified only by number. Shawna Morrison, court reporter for the Roanoke Times newspaper in Virginia, says judges in her area prohibit naming jurors or photographing them. When the trial has ended, jurors are escorted to their autos, and no one may leave the courtroom until all the jurors have departed.
Judges usually tell jurors that they are not required to talk to anyone about their experiences, but that they have a right to speak. Many reporters have succeeded in getting jurors to give interviews about their impressions of a case and why a particular verdict was reached.
Journalist as Juror
Occasionally, a journalist is chosen for a jury and may choose to speak about the experience. Denis Collins, who had reported for the Washington Post, served on the Washington, D.C., jury that in 2007 convicted Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, of perjury and obstruction of justice. Fellow jurors chose Collins as their spokesman; he told reporters that many of them felt sympathy for Libby and believed he was the "fall guy" in a complicated case involving security leaks.
The fact that the Libby case was able to go before a jury and be witnessed by news reporters was a vivid demonstration that even cases that involve national-security issues can be subject to public scrutiny in an American courtroom.
Some jurors work with journalists in writing about their experiences. Seven jurors in the sensational California trial of Scott Peterson, convicted in 2004 of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, collaborated with writers on a book. One revelation was that some jurors "suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome and have flashbacks ... some have nightmares, some have received death threats, and some have physical pain."
Covering legal issues as a journalist isn`t viewed as a conflict with jury service. This writer, called for jury duty in Washington, D.C., told a judge and the opposing lawyers that he had written a book on criminal justice that might bias his participation. He was placed on the jury anyway.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)