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Judiciary Media Relations: Some Suggestions

By J. Regalado E. Maambong

Even if occasionally, tension between judges and journalists occur and sometimes reach an all-time high. This, in spite of the fact that journalists today are considerably more conservative, thoughtful and professional in their reporting. In fact, it is now extremely rare for a journalist to identify a rape victim and identification is frowned upon by almost all news organizations. Thus, absent much data, most newspaper coverage of trials appear incomplete and anti-sensational that it borders on boring, even though court proceedings are by law open to the public and court records are public records. However, courts have been nearly uniform in turning back any exercise of prior restraint on reporting except for the prohibition of cameras and television coverage in the courtroom, while courts are in session.

To address such tension, the Supreme Court through the Philippine Judicial Academy formed a subcommittee on judiciary-media relations. It produced a Judiciary-Media Relations Manual which is still pending approval. What the Manual seeks to defuse is the tension which sometimes exist between judges and journalists or reporters, and thereby hopefully build better relationships.

After going over data and inputs put forward by resource persons and consultants, the problem may be expressed in the following manner.

Judges complain that reporters, especially those in television, sensationalize their stories to sell newspapers or attract viewers and that the facts in their stories are usually wrong. This applies to columnists as well who normally express opinions diametrically opposed to rulings of the court, thus, making it appear in the eyes of the reading public that the court did wrong. There is also a claim that few journalists understand legal proceedings and many have no respect for privacy rules.

That is one side of the coin. By contrast, reporters contend that some judges try to control and limit information about their cases. They say that some overly strict judges improperly place their concerns about a fair trial over the rights of free speech, free press, and an open court process.

With this conflict in mind, there is a need to gain a better understanding of what is happening and why, otherwise the reading public will become more confused than informed.

The increasing number of legal conflicts between journalists trying to cover courts, and court officials trying to deny access to proceedings or information, is significant. If commentaries of columnists are added, we have a situation in our hands and confrontation between journalists and court officials will rise. At the extreme, court decisions are put in doubt because of unjust criticism. The power of media in forming public opinion cannot be underestimated.

The cause of the problem lies on both sides. On the side of judges, it is a problem of turf. Judges, as well as lawyers, are used to being in control. When reporters are involved, judges lose control of the interpretation of information once given. This is a scary situation to many judges. So they overreact, since most judges have no idea about journalists or how journalists operate or what they need.

But on the journalism side of things, there is a problem too. Not all journalists are from reputable broadsheets or local television or radio stations. Some are tabloid journalists or reporters who have no ethics and neither practice any care to follow the rules of the journalism profession. Most journalists do not understand the law or court processes.

Aside from this major disconnection, to judges, process and procedure are of utmost importance, whereas to journalists outcome or results are what matters most.

To be sure, therefore, the subcommittee felt the need for a continuing dialogue – the first one was held in Cebu City - to educate journalists about the nuts and bolts of covering courts. Judges and lawyer-journalists contributed in that effort. Judges were informed that there is nothing wrong if judges are media friendly by just following the law and rules on access to courts and judicial proceedings, and not simply ignore the law.

And while most journalists try to do the right thing, there is a need for them to be properly equipped with the knowledge and resources to adequately cover courts and legal issues, to address the sentiment echoed by many judges.

Most journalists covering courts are not lawyers. In fact, the court beat at many newspapers and television or radio stations is an entry level position filled by reporters straight out of journalism school, if they came out from such school at all.

At one time, a prosecutor could not help but berate a cub reporter who asked: “If the court finds him not guilty, will you appeal?” How could the prosecution appeal? Apparently, the reporter does not know the elementary principle of “double jeopardy.” Something like this could damage beyond repair the credibility of all journalists who cover the courts. But this will always happen because the sad truth is that newspapers, television and radio stations do not exert effort to educate their reporters as to the intricacies of the legal system. There are, of course, other reasons. Due to staffing reductions, journalists have to write more articles in a shorter period of time, even on topics beyond their expertise. Budget cuts prevent news gathering organizations from sending journalists and reporters to educational workshops and seminars.

But the problem is there and it has to be met head-on because judges must not forget that journalists have the right, even a responsibility, to cover the courts and turn the spotlight on operations and actions of the court. Courtrooms are public, political institutions and, absent special and limited circumstances, the courthouse should be open to the public at all times. And since, most of the time, the public cannot be in the courtroom to see what is happening, so the job rests with the news media. It is, of course, unfair to attribute assaults on judges to incorrect media reporting. Judges are pretty much like journalists. Their jobs carry high risks. It is not a desirable theory to slander the deceased, but there are cases where the aggrieved person could not get justice from the judiciary or fairness from the press and thus resort to violence is a way of striking back at actual or conceived corruption or ineptness. Fourteen judges have been killed since 1991, the last two in 2007. But judges are not as endangered as journalists 54 of whom have been gunned down since 1986. The killing can be job-related and yet not for what the judge or journalist was bound to do under oath or work ethic.

Bringing together scores of judges and journalists all over the country to dialogue in a series of day-long workshops to be conducted regularly by the Philippine Judicial Academy and institutional sponsors is certainly an ambitious project but it would go a long way, and it has been started. It is a welcome relief to note that judges are performing well in the difficult task of protecting the rights of media vis-à-vis the right of the parties on trial, and the media has responded with fair criticism of judicial actuations.

To develop relations further, it was the consensus of the subcommittee that judges should help facilitate the goal of media to get the news, wherever possible. It was suggested that every judge should know the beat reporters who cover their courts by introducing himself or herself and his or her clerk to them when the occasion arises.

One important goal of the judiciary is to protect the integrity of the court. But it is not a good way to achieve this laudable goal by ignoring and avoiding media at all cost simply because of the risk that media might become uncontrollable. Judges need to recognize that the news media can actually be beneficial to the administration of justice. Journalists can achieve goals that judges cannot, simply by turning the spotlight on the problem. Unjust criticism by a powerful media can also destroy a judge or damage beyond repair the integrity of the court.

The bottom line is that judges should realize that the news media are not their enemy, but in the same way, not their friend either. But numerous examples abound showing news media advocating for judges and the courts, and judges have a no better ally in exposing unjust criticisms and attacks on the independence of the judiciary than the news media.

But there should be no mistake about it. The media is there to be a watchdog in much the same way as judges are the gatekeepers of the courts. This means that media will expose corruption or problems within the courts. We cannot avoid media inquiries and stories that, to judges, seem wrongheaded or even improper, if not embarrassing. But this conflict is not new. We have to live with it. A legitimate news story as a newswriting event may appear unfair to a judge or court but publication cannot be suppressed. On the bright side, media can use the same means to show how the courts are being unfairly and unjustly attacked.

Judges, on their own initiative, can definitely improve media coverage of the courts with a view towards good public relations as well as build public confidence in our courts.

For one thing, there are very basic things that judges in every jurisdiction – large and small – can do to improve the accuracy of the stories that are written about them and the courts.

Aside from introducing one’s self to the journalists, a judge can tell them how the court operates, how to best access court records, and the basic rules the court has in place.

Bench-bar media conference is a good suggestion where reporters are invited to a day-long program with judges and lawyers to discuss how to better work together. These are wonderful opportunities to forge relationships and develop a dialogue.

Journalists as a matter of course also police their own ranks. Admittedly, it is to their credit that they follow a strict code of journalism and unwritten rules of excellence and integrity, not to mention proper responsibility in reportage. But to be sure, both sides deserve some blame. Still, news organizations supported by judges must conduct media-related programs and provide scholarships to reporters and editors to educate about the role of judges, the legal process, constitutional boundaries, and the rights and responsibilities of journalists. The programs, of course, must be taught by judges, lawyers and seasoned legal journalists, to make them more credible.

Judges must attend seminars as well on how to deal with news media especially in high profile matters and in the proper reaction of judges to unjust criticisms. And, most importantly, judges can improve tremendously media coverage by issuing legally correct, reasoned and well-organized decisions. By helping reporters, read and understand a very difficult decision without resorting to outside experts like lawyers in the case or law professors, journalists are given the time to report and write sensibly about the case without reading voluminous records and briefs. Helping journalists gain a better understanding of facts and arguments do not run counter to ethical prohibitions on judicial conduct and is never a bad thing.

After all, building bridges between judges and journalists result in accurate public information towards a better administration of justice.




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