Tips on reporting on court proceedings
Reporting on court hearings is an essential part of journalism. It 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: Remember 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 the key facts
The most interesting things about 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.
Gavel image by S Falkow and released under Creative Commons
Bob Eggington has been a journalist since 1969. He began in newspapers before joining the BBC where he worked for almost 30 years, including a spell as the head of the BBC's political and parliamentary unit. He was the project director responsible for launching BBC News Online in 1997. Bob currently works as a media strategy consultant in the UK and overseas.