Reporting On The Courts

Covering One of Journalism's Most Complex & Interesting Beats

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So you've gotten a handle on covering a basic police story, and now you want to follow a case as it winds its way through the criminal justice system.

Welcome to the courthouse beat!

Covering the courts is one of the most challenging and fascinating beats at any news operation, one rich with human drama. The courtroom, after all, is very much like a stage in which the actors - the accused, the attorneys, the judge and jury - all have their roles to play.

And, depending on the severity of the alleged crime, the stakes can be enormously high when the defendant's freedom - or even his life - are at issue.

Here, then, are some steps to follow when you decide to visit your local courthouse to cover a trial.

Pick the Right Courthouse To Visit

There are courts of varying jurisdictions scattered across the country, from the smallest local court that deals with little more than traffic ticket disputes to the nation's highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

It may be tempting to get your feet wet by visiting a small local court, sometimes known as a municipal court. But, depending on where you live, these very small courts are often fairly limited in scope. It may be interesting to watch people bicker over traffic tickets for a few minutes, but eventually you'll want to move on to bigger things.

Generally the best place to start is a state superior Court.

This is a court where trials for serious crimes, otherwise known as felonies, are heard. State superior courts are where most trials are heard, and are where most court reporters ply their trade. Changes are there's one in the county seat where you live.

Do Research Before You Go

Once you've found a state superior court in your area, do as much research as you can.

For instance, if there's a highly publicized trial that's been covered in the local media, read up on it before you go. familiarize yourself with everything about the case - the accused, the alleged crime, the victims, the lawyers involved (both the prosecution and the defense) and the judge. You can never know too much about a case.

If you don't have a specific case in mind, visit the court clerk's office to see what trials are being heard on the day you plan to visit (this list of cases is sometimes known as the docket.) Once you've decided which case you want to cover, get as many of the documents associated with that case from the clerk as possible (you may have to pay photocopying costs.)

Remember, a good portion of the story you write will be background material: the who, what, where, when, why and how of the case. So the more of that you have ahead of time, the less confused you'll be when you're in the courtroom.

When You Go

Dress Appropriately: T-shirts and jeans may be comfortable, but they don't convey a sense of professionalism. You don't necessarily have to show up in a three-piece suit or your best dress, but wear the kind of clothes that would be appropriate in, say, an office.

Leave the Weapons At Home: Most courthouses have metal detectors, so don't bring anything that's likely to set off alarms. As a print reporter all you need is a notebook and a few pens anyway.

A Note About Cameras & Recorders: Laws can vary from state to state, but generally are pretty restrictive about bringing cameras or recorders into a courtroom; check with the court clerk before you go to see what the rules are where you live.

Once in the Court

Take Thorough Notes: No matter how much pre-trial reporting you do, chances are you'll find courtroom proceedings a bit confusing at first. So take good, thorough notes, even about things that don't seem that important. Until you understand what's really going on, it will be hard for you to judge what's important - and what's not.

Make Note of Legal Terms You Don't Understand: The legal profession is filled with jargon - legalese - that, for the most part, only lawyers fully understand.

So if you hear a term you don't know, make note of it, then check the definition online or in a legal encyclopedia when you get home. Don't ignore a term just because you don't understand it.

Watch For Moments of Real Drama: Many trials are long period of relatively boring procedural stuff punctuated by brief moments of intense drama. Such drama could come in the form of an outburst from the defendant, an argument between an attorney and the judge or the expression on the face of a juror. However it happens, these dramatic moments are bound to be important when you finally write your story, so take note of them.

Do Reporting Outside The Courtroom: It's not enough to faithfully transcribe what happens in the courtroom. A good reporter has to do just as much reporting outside the court. Most trials have several recesses through out the day; use those to try to interview the attorneys on both sides to get as much background as you can about the case. If the lawyers won't talk during a recess, get their contact information and ask if you can call or e-mail them after the trial has ended for the day.

Read about writing court stories.

Learn about the structure of the state and federal court systems here.