By Megan Whitfield
Heading into this assignment, I was largely unaware of the complexities of court reporting. I understood that accuracy was paramount, however did not recognise the processes that must be undertaken to confirm these details and protect yourself again potential cases of defamation.
When reporting on a sensitive topic such as a court case, a journalist must be aware of the legal implications of the wording of their article. The consideration of impartiality is particularly important, as any inference of guilt or swayed presentation of character could lead to either party involved in a case to unjust scrutiny by the general population, thereby providing, potentially, grounds for a defamation case. This risk is even higher if there are any inaccuracies in the reporting.
A clear (and very timely) example of the importance accuracy came through the mistakes of journalist, Krystal Johnson, who reported on information not presented to the jury in an on-going case. As a result, Johnson risked contempt charges through potential interfering with the fairness of trial, protocols in reporting not adhered to. This case opened my eyes to the significant importance in adhering to correct court etiquette- from nodding the Judge when entering the courtroom, reporting only what is reported to the jury, not speaking to those involved in an ongoing case and more. Repercussion can include fines, or even imprisonment- not just for well-known journalists, but even students like myself.
However, as I learned throughout this assignment, clarifying details and ensuring accuracy can be a delayed process. While there is, to an extent, open access to the courts and freedom on information, to get your hands on official documents such as a court transcript or presented piece of evidence, there are many procedures to follow. Applying for access to this information can take up to two weeks, by which stage a case may have lost its relevance, particularly for minor cases, such as the ones I was reporting on.
I quickly learned the importance of writing with speed, and writing as much as I could- I could decide what information was relevant later. Unlike in a typical interview, you can’t simply as the Judge to ‘please repeat that last sentence’ or confirm if that was spelt ‘with an ‘a’ or an ‘e’?
Another challenge I faced I this assignment was finding cases to report on that were newsworthy. Naïvely, I believed that one trip to the courts would provide sufficient time for me to find two cases to report on. However, I quickly discovered that would not be the case. I had to return to court multiple times, a majority of the cases I heard being adjourned or insufficient in detail to meet the work count.
Eventually I found my newsworthy cases, suitable for publishing in a local newspaper in their respective communities. My first case I deemed relevant in terms of the news value of proximity, and on the basis of the repeated nature of the offence. Further, I was interested in the understanding manner of the Magistrate, editing the sentence to ‘without conviction’ so as to ensure the defendant could receive a work placement in the future and thereby become a contributing member of society. My second case I believed to be relevant due to the danger of the offence, yet the difficulty to provide adequate punishment considering the defendant’s upcoming departure from Australia.
Both reports also allowed opportunity for further articles, such as a more in-depth feature on the occurrence of drink-driving, delays in the court system, and the importance of education and employment in preventing crime.
Ultimately this assignment provided hands-on insight into the importance of attention to detail and commitment to accuracy in court-reporting. Unlike various other forms of journalism, court reporting cannot be completed by just anyone, a low standard of reporting opening up the potential for legal repercussions.