Published on April 25, 2012  

Many Americans can’t get enough news coverage of sensational trials. Many others are dismayed by it. Gene Policinski shares those concerns, but not for the same reasons. Speaking at Samford’s 2012 Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum in April, the Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the First Amendment Center said trial coverage captures perhaps one percent of what happens in those courtrooms. That’s not enough to maintain public confidence in the fairness of the process. For that, he said, the nation needs dedicated, well-informed legal journalists.

Protectors

Policinski said that although the press is often pilloried for being intrusive and sensationalist in legal matters, it plays an essential civic role. “When journalists sit in a courtroom taking notes, when they write or broadcast or post the subsequent stories, they’re there as observers, representatives and, to some degree, I think, protectors of the Constitution,” Policinski said. “It’s a role seen by our founders as essential to the way our democracy functions”.

Unfortunately, he said, this already “rare and privileged occupation” is endangered by the poor economy and the increasing tendency toward government secrecy since 9/11, even in matters unrelated to national security.

Beyond those recent factors, Policinski described a long descent from the days when large newspapers assigned legal beat reporters and even maintained offices in courthouses. It became harder to recruit reporters, Policinski said, and then reporters covered only major stories. “The legal training that was either formal or informal, went down to zero,” he lamented, recalling his own introduction to legal reporting under the tutelage of a sympathetic judge.

Policinski was fortunate to find that mentor, but such luck isn’t likely to spark the renaissance in legal reporting he hopes to see. His First Amendment Center is developing a four-part approach to systematically improve both the quantity and quality of judicial news coverage.

• It will offer a “curriculum in a box” ranging in length from two weeks to an entire semester, encouraging journalism departments to supplement their programs with the readymade resource.

• It will encourage journalism departments near state and federal courts to act as judicial news bureaus for local media. Policinski said older students could cover appellate courts--“the supreme court for most of us,” where there is a “tremendous body of law being made that isn’t being covered”.

• It will borrow an idea from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics project, offering a game-based approach to fostering interest and expertise in legal journalism.

• It will help the judiciary connect with journalism classrooms through new technology, not only opening windows onto certain proceedings but also allowing judges to enter the those classrooms as expert sources.

A Model Reporter

Policinski praised the career of the forum’s namesake several times during the event, which was co-sponsored by Samford’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication and Cumberland School of Law. Although alumnus Timothy Sumner Robinson ’65 is often praised for his coverage of the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post, the April event called to mind his later biography. Robinson earned a master of studies in law at Yale University in the late 1970s, wrote a weekly legal column for the Post and became editor-in-chief of the National Law Journal and the Los Angeles Daily Journal. He directed coverage of nationally significant trials for the latter publication. Robinson passed away in 2003 but his family preserved his memory and passion by creating the annual forum at his Alma Mater.

Cleary cut from the same cloth as Robinson, Policinski last covered the “Atlanta Child Murders” trial of 1982. The trial was not publicly televised, and he noted that few citizens would have had the stamina to watch every “backside-numbing” second. That was his job as a veteran legal journalist, and he was struck by how the case was built on extended technical expert testimony about carpet fibers. “It was not a TV moment,” he said of the slow and meticulous process, but it was foundation of the successful case against defendant Wayne Williams.

The parade of expert witness for the prosecution in the Williams trial underscores Policinski’s call for journalists to help preserve the independence and fairness of the judiciary. He noted that few defendants can match the resources available to the state for prosecution, and that juries and elected judges face intense pressure to return popular verdicts. Defendants can seem, and actually be, very much alone on their side of the courtroom. Journalists sit with neither prosecution nor defense, but on the side of justice, Policinski said. “You hold that entire system accountable, in the most positive way. “You are, as the founders envisioned, a guarantor of liberty.”