A study of a single magistrates’ court based in a major UK city found there were “hundreds of potential stories left untold” every week, painting a “grim picture” of the state of court reporting.
Just three articles were published about proceedings at Bristol Magistrates’ Court during one week in January 2018, according to research published by journalism and law academics at the University of the West of England.
The study, published this month, said 240 cases passed through the court over the period, but its observers spotted only one working journalist.
The study monitored 40 local newspapers and online media outlets in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset – the area served by Bristol Magistrates’ Court.
The academics concluded that although their study was small-scale, it showed there is “some justification for the perception that court reporting at this level is in a poor state”.
They added: “…the lack of coverage during the week is clear when compared to the hundreds of cases heard during that period, concerning people across Bristol and the surrounding area.
“Effectively, this local-level justice was being conducted invisibly.”
At least one observer, who had had journalism training, was present in every sitting courtroom at Bristol Magistrates’ Court for the week and filled in a checklist to capture the details of each case.
They then ranked the newsworthiness of each one, taking into account the seriousness of the crime, whether the defendant was a public figure and whether there were any unusual factors brought up during the hearing.
“Many cases during the week fulfilled several news values identified for crime and court reporting,” the academics said.
But, they added: “Traditional news values have been turned upside down in the news reports due to a lack of presence in court, with low-level crimes making it into print due to the availability of a press release, or that stories are only half told using PR”.
A story about a series of violent attacks in a local town centre was published in that town’s paper during the week, written by the reporter seen in court.
The other two were both in the Bristol Post, although the study said its observers did not spot any Post reporters in court.
One story concerned the case of a man stealing a car and driving it without a licence or insurance, which the academics gave the lowest ranking on the study’s newsworthiness scale and said was largely based on a press release.
The second article, which only appeared online, comprised a list provided by the Crown Prosecution Service of 60 convictions that took place in the area during the week with the “bare bones” of each case reported.
“This is hardly an example of robust and independent oversight by journalism,” the report said.
It also said important information about the wide criminal justice system was being missed as a result of journalists failing to attend court.
The report’s authors – Phil Chamberlain, Marcus Keppel-Palmer, Sally Reardon and Thomas Smith – suggested the checklist sheets used by the study’s court observers could be a useful tool for new journalists.
The suggestion followed conversations with “new local online and physical publications” in which they “indicated that they do not have people sufficiently confident, trained, or knowledgeable to go into court”.
The academics also acknowledged that getting traditional outlets to invest more in court reporting “is difficult given the current economic challenges facing traditional media”.
The study proposed the development of a “reporting toolkit”.
This, it said, would “enable citizen journalists and other interested news outlets to improve their legal knowledge, overcome trepidation in covering courts, produce publishable copy for local media outlets… and embrace justice reporting to fulfill the social function of journalism”.
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