More than half of local newspapers don’t have a court reporter
More than half of all local newspaper editors acknowledge that the courts are not being adequately covered in their own papers, according to new research by the Justice Gap. The study also reports a 40% drop off in the number of court stories on a single day this year compared to the same date four years ago.
For the second issue of Proof magazine to be published next month, Brian Thornton, a senior journalism lecturer at Winchester University, has updated a study carried out by Professor Leslie Moran from Birkbeck law school which looked at the coverage of the courts in the national and regional papers on one day (February 16 2012).
Thornton analyzed the same newspapers on the same day four years later. The results were compared across eight national papers (Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Guardian, Independent, Sun and Times) and five local titles (Birmingham Mail, London Evening Standard, Manchester Evening News, South Wales Echo, and Western Mail).
In 2012 there was a total of 82 court stories in the national and regional newspapers compared to just 57 court stories which represented a fall of (30%). The word count for the 82 stories in 2012 was 27,225 and that fell to 18,954 in 2016, also a decrease of 30%.
‘A fall of 30% in the number of stories and word count is pretty dramatic, but the figure masks an even greater fall in the regional press,’ noted Brian Thornton, who is also a commissioning editor on the Justice Gap. ‘While the number of court stories in the national papers fell 25% from 52 to 39, the decrease in the regional papers was 40% from 30 to 18.’ He acknowledged that the study only represented a snapshot of activity on a single day and it could be that those days were ‘uncharacteristically busy or quiet and not truly representative’. But he added hat there was nothing to suggest that the dates were anything other than unremarkable.
There have long been concerns about the decline of court reporting.
In 2009 the Guardian journalist Nick Davies noted in his book Flat Earth News that, aside from the Old Bailey or the Royal Courts of Justice, you were ‘as likely to see a zebra as a court reporter’. ‘It is now impossible to escape the conclusion that the number of court stories in both national and regional newspapers has fallen dramatically,’ Thornton commented. ‘If this is the case, it raises some very significant issues about the legal system in general, but specifically about the lack of oversight that the courts are subject to.’
Brian Thornton’s article for Proof also draws on a survey of editors of daily local newspapers in relation to court reports in their respective newspapers. Some 57 newspapers editors responded to the survey conducted by journalism students.
Editors were asked to agree or disagree with the assertion by the legal journalist Marcel Berlins that it was ‘abundantly clear that the courts are no longer being properly reported’. More than half of editors agreed, including 11% who agreed strongly. More than four out of 10 editors reckoned it was not essential to have a dedicated court reporter.
Less than half of editors said that their papers had a dedicated shorthand court reporter (44%) and more than half admitted that they had relied on a police press release in the absence of having their own reporter in court or else drawing on an agency report (55%).
‘The fact that the media is engaging less and less with the everyday workings of the criminal justice system means that journalists are increasing unaware of what actually happens in such important settings as crown courts or coroner’s courts. I would argue that this ignorance is dangerous because it spreads to the public,’ comments Thornton. ‘If the public aren’t being informed about what’s happening in courts, how can they be expected to know?’
The academic, who is a former producer on BBC’s Newsnight, noted that the fact that fewer and fewer court proceedings were being observed by anyone outside the legal profession meaning that there was ‘virtually no lay oversight, no-one to highlight problems or malpractice’.
Thornton argues that it is an alarming trend that poses particular problems for anyone investigating miscarriage of justice cases. ‘The first thing that a reporter will do when they want to look into a case involving a possible wrongful conviction is to retrieve the relevant court reports/ transcripts. But because – as has been highlighted by the Justice Gap – court transcripts are routinely destroyed a few years after the conclusion of a trial, the only record that will exist of the trial is the one written by the court reporter and published, often, in a local newspaper. But if newspapers are reducing the number of court reporters, along with reducing the number of stories they cover, then there is a growing number of cases that will be lost completely to the collective memory. Hundreds and hundreds of cases each year will go unrecorded – bizarrely becoming essentially secret trials because no one will have any information about them.’
Proof court reporting survey
Is there a dedicated court reporter at your newspaper? 56% of the editors said there wasn’t
If you do not currently have a dedicated court reporter, did you have one in the last five years? 8% of the editors said that in the last five years they had a dedicated court reporter, but didn’t have one now.
If there is a court reporter at your paper, how often does he/she attend court? 62% said the reporter attends court at least once a week. 60% of editors said they cover court stories in each edition. 11% said they rarely do.
If your newspaper covers court cases, where do you get your stories? 59% of editors said they get their stories from a mix of reporters and agency copy. 38% said they get it entirely from their court reporter. 5% said they got it entirely from agencies.
Instead of sending a reporter or using agency copy – have you ever relied on a police press release for your court report? 55% said they would, 45% said they wouldn’t.
Has your court reporter at the paper used twitter to report on a court case? 44% of editors said they never have, 22% said rarely, 22% said sometimes and 12% said often.
Do you think the courts are generally positive to journalists reporting on cases? 92% of editors said they were.
How important is it to have a dedicated court reporter at a local newspaper? 42% of editors said it was useful, but not essential. 33% said it was very important and 21% said it was important. 4% said it wasn’t important.
The journalist Marcel Berlins has said: ‘It is abundantly clear that the courts are no longer being properly reported.’ 45% of editors agreed with this statement, 11% strongly agreed. 38% of editors disagreed, while 6% strongly disagreed.
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award