(This reflection was written following my court reporting assignment, as a part of my Ethics, Law, and Power class within my Journalism course. I’ve reflected upon my visits to the courts, as well as the stories gathered from them.)
Reportage of the courts has been one of the most interesting aspects of journalism that I’ve come across so far. Having gone to the courts three times for this assignment – once to the County and twice to the Magistrates’ – I would never have imagined the amount of true drama and emotion that comes simply from sitting in on cases. I’d never been to a court before, so all of this was a new experience for me.
As journalists, we always strive for objectivity and correctness. Yet, they are absolutely paramount here. Any slip-ups could very realistically result in jail time, or at the very least they could tarnish your reputation (see: Krystal Johnson). “Never report anything that has been said in the absence of a jury” and “always attend the proceedings you are reporting on” are mantras that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget. Keeping this in mind, I wanted to make sure that everything was perfect. As a result, during the first court visit, I was incredibly nervous… it didn’t help that the first court that we walked into was a closed court. As soon as we sat down, we were asked if we were students, and we were told to always check the door – as there was a notice on there saying that the case had a suppression order. I guess checking would’ve make sense…
Nevertheless, we got into some open courtrooms, and sat in on an array of cases. Personally I found the most interesting one to be the first one that we sat in on – at the County Court – yet there wasn’t enough there to write on. We saw the victim take the stand, and we heard the 000 call, but in saying that we only heard his side of the events. The next two trips were both to the Magistrates’, and I was amazed at the difference in pace. A huge amount of cases started and finished in the same time that it took for the victim to take the stand at the County.
The two cases that I chose to write about came from my third and final visit to the courts. Partly because I found these more interesting that the cases I’d encountered on my prior visit to the Magistrates’, and partly because my notes from these cases were much better than any of the others. It took me a couple of times to learn how to effectively take notes in the courtroom. Yet, on that point – I encountered quite an interesting case on that prior visit. I was getting some good (though disjointed & messy) notes, and I was sure that I would write about it. There were some emotionally loaded quotes from both the Magistrate and the accused – who was vehemently against getting any legal aid – and the case was just incredibly intriguing.
However, towards the end of the case, the accused confessed that he didn’t want legal aid because his whole family was involved in the legal profession, with his father being a Magistrate himself – and he didn’t want them to know that he was in court. Sure, his family would’ve found out eventually, yet from an ethical standpoint, I didn’t exactly want to be the one to put the story out there. Plus, my notes weren’t as good as I thought they were, so I couldn’t really salvage enough for a full story anyway.
Back to my reports – I feel as though they could both be published in local papers, as they’re both quite small cases in the grand scheme of things. The first case happened in my area, and I’ve seen similar cases reported in local newspapers in the past. I don’t know if I would take either story further, because they both started and ended on the day.
However, with the second report, I’d have to go back and get the final verdict. I wasn’t 100% sure what ‘stood down’ meant at the time… if I did then I would’ve stayed around and waited for it, but alas. I guess that comes with experience. In fact, someone who looked like they worked at the court came up to us as we were looking at the court lists checking name spellings, and asked if we needed any help – if that happens again, I’ll be sure to ask those sorts of legal terminology-related questions.
Overall, I found court reporting to be quite a daunting yet exciting experience. I felt more comfortable with it each time, yet in saying that, there’s no telling what you could walk into. I guess that’s where some of the excitement lies – the unexpected yet always dramatic nature of the reporting. People are always at the centre though, and as such, legal and ethical considerations must always be taken into account. The public’s right to know must always be balanced with the notion of “do no harm”, and this is something which I’ll constantly need to consider as a journalist, court reporter or otherwise.