Why is the media at court?

Why is the Media at Court?

If you attend court, you may see reporters sitting inside the courtroom taking notes or gathered out the front of the building. Members of the media can include television and radio broadcasters, print and online journalists.

This article will explain why representatives from the media are in the courtroom, and your rights around communicating with them.

Journalists attend court proceedings when they are seen to be in the public interest. The media’s role is to hold people in power to account, and to report and explain stories of interest and concern to the public. This will often include coverage of court cases. It could be for anything from a minor traffic infringement committed by a celebrity, to trials for murder or political corruption.

Any case can become of interest, for a variety of reasons. If a political figure, sports star or any other high-profile individual is charged with a crime, there will be significant interest from the public about the facts of the case, and what takes place inside the courtroom. The media’s function is then to cover events as they take place in open court, and to report the details accurately to the public. 

The media will also cover cases that are seen to be particularly shocking: often murder trials will attract significant public attention. Media interest will usually continue for the duration of the case, which can be weeks, months, or sometimes even years.

Of course, reporters cover court stories for a variety of other reasons. Interesting things can happen to anyone. If, for whatever reason, your case becomes interesting to the public, reporters may attend court to cover it.

Reporters and press packs can create an intimidating atmosphere in courts, in situations where people can already be under a significant amount of stress. 

Having the media at court can mean clicking cameras, popping flashbulbs, and running journalists chasing someone down the street to ask them questions. This sort of attention is mostly reserved for high profile cases with significant media coverage, and so most people won’t experience this level of media scrutiny.

The media are only able to report what is said and heard in open court and are not able to write or report anything resembling opinion or speculation. In severe breaches of this, trials have been brought to a premature end because the reporting was so damaging that it impacted the prospects of a fair trial. Because of these risks, most reporters are careful not to speculate or mistake the facts of a case.

Are journalists allowed to talk to me or film me … and do I have to talk to them?

No, you never have to speak to a journalist if you don’t want to. 

If your case is one of public interest, that does not mean you are obliged to talk to reporters about it.

If you are a juror, you are not allowed to speak with the media. 

If you are a witness in a case, you are also forbidden to talk to the media while the case is before the court. 

You can choose to speak to reporters about your own case, but it’s a good idea to talk to your legal representative first and err on the side of caution about what you want to say.

Journalists or cameras crews may approach you going into or coming out of court, and they may also contact you via phone, email, or social media. The same rules apply about communicating with the media through these channels, too.

If you are in a public place, such as outside the courthouse, then yes, members of the media can film or take photographs of you. There are rules in place for media broadcasting of images of vulnerable witnesses or people under 18 years old.

Tips for dealing with the media

  • Having a written statement ready to go to read out to reporters can help settle nerves. You can always give your statement to someone else to read out, too. 
  • If you are comfortable answering questions from reporters, feel free to do so. Reporters will often wait for a little while at the end of someone’s answer, to prompt them to continue speaking. Say what you mean, but don’t feel pressured to continue talking for the sake of it.
  • If you don’t wish to speak to reporters, say so firmly and politely, and continue on your way. If you’re followed, stay calm and keep your cool. 
  • If you are approached by a reporter and you don’t want to speak with them, they should accept this and shouldn’t press you any further. 
  • Remember, things said to reporters can appear in print and/or be broadcast, unless they are told to the journalist officially ‘off the record.’ 

By being in court, the media brings to the fore the humanity of court proceedings, bearing witness to the lasting impact of crime. We report not only the evidence but the response to the evidence, along with verdicts and sentencing, that’s why it’s necessary to be both inside and outside the court. The media’s coverage of courts shocks, amazes, educates and engages, it’s never dull.

Former ABC Court Reporter Philippa McDonald.

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