Writing court reports is an essential task undertaken by journalists and all should be able to write one effectively. To write a good court report, a journalist must be able to navigate their way through a range of legal and ethical issues, or risk being sued for defamation or charged with contempt of court. Court reports are important as they keep the public informed of the judicial process and make sure our legal system is open and accountable.
A number of cases, especially ones involving serious crimes such as murder, are extremely newsworthy and can dominate the news agenda. Even smaller cases in the Magistrates Court can be newsworthy at a local level, but also on a wider scale as they can sometimes be unique or entertaining. Being a court reporter requires knowledge of criminal and civil law, as well as of the court process. I had previous knowledge from studying legal studies in high school and this was complemented by the knowledge I gained from my Ethics, Law and Power lectures. As with all forms of journalism, court reports must adhere to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Court reports must be fair, accurate and balanced, especially during ongoing cases, as failure to do so could prejudice the jury in a case. This would classify as sub judice contempt as it is harms the accused’s right to a fair trial.
When I went into a court to take notes for the first time, I realised choosing the right case and being prepared was vitally important. The first few court rooms I went to had adjournments, or cases which were midway through, which made establishing the vital details of the case difficult. I decided to go a second time, being more prepared and looking at the court listings beforehand, to ensure I could find a newsworthy and suitable case.
I entered courtroom one, with a few other students and we listened to an interesting case about a man who stole from QV shopping centre. While I managed to jot down most of the important details of the case for my report, I underestimated how hard it is to write facts down quickly, while still listening to the case for further information. This makes shorthand a vital skill which I will endeavour to learn in the future.
There were a few facts, such as Langer’s age and his attorney’s name, which I realised later I did not take down, but some information we were able to ascertain from the bench clerk. Making the most of the resources available at the court, such as the bench clerk or the staff at the general enquires counter, can make the court reporting process a lot easier.
A second interesting case I heard was a bail application hearing, for a man who committed a string of aggravated burglaries. This case threw up a number of legal and ethical issues which I had to consider when writing the report. Legally, as it was only a bail application hearing, the case was still ongoing and sub judice even after bail was denied. With this in mind I did not name the accused. There was also the legal and ethical issue of including prior convictions. As this formed the bulk of the Magistrate’s judgement and was the most newsworthy angle, I decided to include it, but tried to do so as fairly as possible by noting his clean record for a year and his drug rehabilitation. By not naming the accused, it would not prejudice a future jury which could decide his case.
There was also the ethical issue of disclosing mental illness, which was mentioned in both cases. I decided to do so, but in a respectful way (not using pejorative terms such as ‘crazy’ or ‘loony’), and by including support numbers at the end of the piece, for any readers affected. I also made sure I did not let their mental health issues define the defendants, for example I wrote “experienced mental health issues” rather than saying “he was mentally ill”.
My court reports are designed to be published in a newspaper like The Age, both online and in print the day after the hearing. Considering both my cases involved defendants with mental health issues, if I were to combine a number of these cases within a story, I could contact a mental health expert to examine the link between mental health and crime. This could be one way to take the story further. Another way would be to speak to the shop owner for the Langer story, as his case had concluded and was no longer sub judice. For the bail application case, I could take the story further by reporting on the next hearing, which took place October 12.
Court reporting is a key platform of journalism, but it can be a difficult skill to get your head around. The nuances of our legal system and even learning proper court etiquette can be quite daunting. My experience at the Magistrates Court was challenging but rewarding, as I now feel more confident covering court cases. Knowing what to include and what to leave out of a court report was another challenge, but one I feel I have handled well. Overall, I am confident my court reports are newsworthy and pacy, while still being legally and ethically sound.