Court reporting for beginners

<a href="" target="_new">Image by WP Paarz</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0</a>
Image by WP Paarz released via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

This module was written for a journalism training course in south-east Europe which was dealing with the basics of newspaper reporting. Those attending had no previous journalism experience or training.

Reporting court proceedings

Reporting on court hearings requires an understanding of local laws and knowing what can be reported and what can‘t.

Some journalists choose to specialise in court reporting and become experts in the field.

Others learn about it through their basic journalism training courses and by covering smaller court hearings.

All need to understand the rules, constraints, the law, what can and cannot be reported, and how to deal with the public after the court hearing is over.

1: Operating within constraints

Courts of law are a controlled environment. Court reporters must operate within these controls.

2: Know who is in charge

The judge is in charge of the court and what happens inside it. The judge has to keep order and usually has the power to imprison those who show contempt of court. That could include you.

3: Know the local laws

Most countries have their own sets of laws covering court reporting. You must know them inside-out. Journalists need to act within the law or they may end up in the dock themselves.

4: Focus on facts

The most interesting elements in any trial are usually the verdict and the sentence. These will normally provide the lead to your story (assuming the trial has finished).

5: Avoid trying to do the judge’s job

In most countries there is a presumption of “innocence until proven guilty”. This should be borne in mind while a trial is in progress and reflected in your copy.

6: Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy

Ensure you get EVERYTHING right. Check names, spellings, titles and responsibilities. Fair and accurate journalism is the basic requirement.

7: Keep a careful note

In courts, as in all other reporting, you should make notes carefully and keep them safely. They may be needed later if your report is disputed.

8: Never take sides

The arguments used by the prosecuting and defence lawyers should be reported in an even-handed way, regardless of the evidence and what is said in court.

9: Courts are also theatre

Dramatic performances by the judge, lawyers, or witnesses make excellent copy. Make sure that you capture all elements.

10: Give credit where it’s due

Trials often hinge on a clever piece of detective work, or advocacy. Ensure you spot these and highlight them in your reporting.

11: Disciplined reporting

It is not particularly skilful to report everything that has been said. It is much more skilful to use only the most interesting and significant parts of a trial.

12: Be ready with the background

Big stories need big coverage. Before the trial, discover as much background as you can, and have it ready for publication after the verdict.

13: The trial may be over but the story continues

Some of the most important elements of your story may be the interviews afterwards with witnesses, family, police etc. Make sure you leave the court in time to get the interviews.

Related training scenario

Emotional pressure – scenario