Live Blogging in the Courtroom, Is It Journalism?

One of the recurring themes I've discovered in my reading assignments for law school is that judges are, by and large, not technologically savvy.  Far from it, in fact.  Thus, it was of great interest to me to find an ABA Journal article about U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett, who recently allowed a journalist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette to blog live during the a tax fraud trial in his Sioux City, Iowa, court.

Bennett was favorably inclined when a reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette e-mailed him to ask if she could use a laptop computer to cover the tax fraud trial of a local landlord by posting live courtroom updates. Bennett took a few days to think it over, and responded that he would allow it, provided that the reporter, Trish Mehaffey, sat farther back in the courtroom where her typing would not be a distraction.

“I thought the public’s right to know what goes on in federal court and the transparency that would be given the proceedings by live-blogging outweighed any potential prejudice to the defendant,” Bennett told the ABA Journal.

The landlord, Robert Miell, was convicted of filing false tax returns as part of an insurance fraud scheme, according to Mehaffey’s stories in the Gazette. Mehaffey carried news of the verdict through an interactive live blog and brief updates on Twitter.com.

The article adds that readers submitted about 500 comments to the blog, which is available here, some of which Ms. Mehaffey responded to as the trial progressed.  The article noted that courtroom blogging seems to be a growing practice: Mehaffey said she'd heard of several cases of reporters' blogging in state court, while some federal courts have allowed it as well, the most high-profile instance being that of the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

But the ABA Journal adds that while Mehaffey and the judge were keen on the new approach, the defendant's lawyer, F. Montgomery Brown, was less so.

Montgomery didn’t have a problem with any courtroom distractions caused by Mehaffey’s blogging. In fact, he said he was unaware the trial was being covered live until the judge mentioned it in passing. “There wasn’t any disruption, from my position,” he told the ABA Journal.

But Brown is worried about problems that could arise if jurors should access the blog outside the courtroom. Brown read Mehaffey’s blog posts after the trial ended, and he thought they included the reporter’s subjective analysis of the trial. What if jurors ignore a judge’s warning not to access the Internet or read media accounts of the case? he asks. Cautioning that he was speaking generally and not about the Miell case, Brown said some jurors could be tempted.

Mr. Brown's concerns seem equally applicable to press coverage in general, though.  Sure, it's quite likely that the reporter's take was subjective to a certain extent. That's natural when blogging without an editor, as appeared to be the case here.  But it's hard to believe that the jurors are more apt to read the blog than to read any other media report.  Perhaps the novelty of it may be a concern in this case, making jurors more curious to check it out.  But if the practice of allowing live blogging becomes more widespread, that risk ought to dissipate.  And frankly, if the jurors are ignoring the judge's orders not to access media accounts of the case, the problem isn't the blogging.

Mark Obbie of the Carnegie Legal Reporting Program's LawBeat blog offers some more convincing concerns about the blogging. Mr. Obbie questions the journalistic value of the blog, arguing that "It's great if you're already obsessively following a case; not so great if you're among the vast majority of readers who aren't, and who are excluded from the insider nature of this conversation."  He notes that he had similar issues both with the live blogging from Scooter Libby's trial and with an instance of a Colorado reporter "Twittering" on a case. It's his criticism of the Libby trial blogging that seems to spell out his concerns best:

Here's why I have such an attitude: It ain't journalism.

It's smart. It's fun to read. Over the long haul, it's much deeper and more detailed than daily-news stories. It's respected by those in the know. But it's for a trial junky. It's atomized, not narrative. It's argumentative, not neutral. It's for a tiny, tiny niche, not for the masses. And it expects way too much from its audience. It, in fact, couldn't care less about audience. The audience finds it, not the other way around.

I care about the other way around. We work hard to inform the masses. We try to make it understandable AND interesting. We write for the person in a hurry who needs to know about this, but doesn't know she needs to know. We invite strangers into our midst. We don't hold little coffee-klatch conversations and stare with cold contempt at the newcomer who has no idea what we're talking about. Blogs do all that, even when they are doing a good job of informing.

He further discusses his criticism with posters in the comments to his blog, which are worth a read.

Certainly, he's got a point.  Reading the Gazette's blog of the Miell trial is not exactly edifying if you aren't familiar with the backstory.  As a first-read news story, it's pretty useless.  But a journalist's job isn't solely to condense events into easily digestible summaries. It's also to convey what actually happened, and there, the live blogs potentially offer a nice way of giving readers a "you are there" glimpse into the trial proper, should they be so interested.  I see it as just another example of the Internet's capacity to allow "drill down" into the news.  You don't have to go read the history of Sri Lanka to understand a story about the Tamil Tigers, but you can if you want.  Similarly, if you want to learn the nitty gritty of the Miell trial, you can check out the Gazette's blog.  It's just offering a new level of depth.

Of course, blogging is arguably less effective at offering an unbiased view of the case, just because there's a journalist doing the processing in between the trial and the reader.   Though the journalist may (and hopefully will) try to offer an unbiased perspective of the proceedings, something like a video feed may be better at presenting a fair picture.  Indeed, a U.S. district court in Boston is considering just this sort of online video feed for one of the P2P file sharing cases.  But it seems reasonable that, with a little practice, journalists could refine their live blogging so as to limit the "subjective analysis" that concerns Meill's lawyer.  And if they did that, live blogging ought to be a perfectly useful tool for reporting - supplementing, not supplanting, Obbie's traditional journalism.

(Arthur Bright is a second-year law student at the Boston University School of Law and a former CMLP Legal Intern. Before attending law school, Arthur was the online news editor at the Christian Science Monitor.)

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Comments

Ugh

The idea that liveblogging a trial "ain't journalism" is nonsense. If the raw reporting of events as they happen, filtered through an individual's voice, isn't journalism, then I guess Edward R. Murrow wasn't one either. And blogging "couldn't care less about the audience," even though the blogger in question was responding directly to questions from the audience?

Just because a story isn't broken into lede-nutgraf-context inverted pyramid style, that doesn't mean it's not journalism.