It's been 30 years since I've covered a court case. The last time was for a basic newswriting class assignment, and if I remember correctly, I covered traffic court.
That changed last week.
The local newspaper editor and I spent last week in the courtroom covering a murder trial. It was tough, especially since where we live (in outstate Nebraska - small-town America), it's kind of like the Cheers slogan: Everybody knows your name.
Listening to testimony each day reminded me of fundamental writing lessons I mastered in Newswriting 101, as well as lessons specific for court reporting.
- Check the case file. I've covered district court for this newspaper in the past, so I had read the majority of the case file in the court office. It is an invaluable tool that includes filed charges, amended charges, and each prior court appearance that's part of this case. Trust me, you will use the background material in your coverage. Sifting through the information in the file also provided an understanding of how this particular court office worked.
- Learn legalese. Criminal cases are intricate. I "know" what a felony is, but I didn't really "KNOW" the difference in classifications of felonies. A visit to my state's government website broke down what constituted differences in first degree, second degree, and manslaughter. Knowing the correct legal terminology came in handy!
- Remember room rules. Does the court allow audio recording devices? Cameras? Cell phones? Once you are aware of the rules (they vary state to state), follow them. The rules have been established for a reason, so respect those that are in place.
- Transcribe testimony. Audio recording devices were not allowed. I filled two notebooks with testimony. The most important lesson about taking notes: be accurate and thorough. Your job is to report the facts as presented through evidence.
- Pay attention to details. Maybe I notice the little things because I direct high school plays or I've spent 23 years watching Law and Order, but I always look for the reaction - whether it's from the prosecution or defense, any court officer, or gallery guest. Now is when the important part comes into play: know which reaction(s) are worth reporting. Does the prosecutor walk with an air of authority? Did someone disrupt the proceedings?
- Ask Attorneys. Here's an opportunity to get additional background and insight into a case and the trial process.
- Remember the human aspect. The best summation of this point came from an attorney in the case I covered (and I'll paraphrase): At the end of the day, families are affected by a trial. As a reporter, your focus is to report accurate facts and remain an impartial teller of the evidence.
It was a lesson I'm not sure I fully appreciated while in J-school.
by LuAnn Schindler. Read more of LuAnn's work at her website.