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Mass. rule in ‘forefront’ of country’s electronic access court rules

Massachusetts electronic access in courts rule is in the “forefront” of state courts, SJC Public Information Officer Joan Kenney said to me this past February. The state has a history of progressive thinking when it comes to technology use in courtrooms, Neil Ungerleider has said. The state was one of the first to adopt a rule allowing use of cameras – the original Rule 1:19 made it on the books in the 1980s. While most other state courts do allow camera usage, many do not permit use of electronic devices for reporting.

“It’s easy for reporters who work in this state to forget that the access that they have is really unique and that while some states have cameras, this may be one of the few of only states that allow the use of the electronic devices,” Ungerleider said.

Meanwhile, lawyer and blogger Robert Ambrogi, who researched equivalent or similar technological access rules of other state judiciaries while on the Rule 1:19 Subcommittee, found that most states do not extend to the lengths the new Massachusetts rule does. Massachusetts is one of the few states that allow two video cameras in a courtroom at a time, and one of the few that specifically grants that permission to citizen journalists in the language of the court rule.

Massachusetts is ahead of the federal courts in terms of electronic access. Federal courts do not allow the use of cameras except in specific federal district courts that are part of a pilot program similar to OpenCourt’s project in Quincy District Court. Cameras have never been allowed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The federal court system is woefully behind the times in terms of allowing cameras in the courtrooms,” Ambrogi said. “We’re still guided by a U.S. Supreme Court that has said not over their dead bodies will they ever let cameras in the Supreme Court. So I think Massachusetts is ahead on this.”

Other state judiciaries’ rules on cameras in courtrooms vary widely. For example, Oklahoma, which previously banned cameras in its courtrooms in its Code of Judicial Conduct, superseded the relevant rule in April 2011. That state now has no formal rules on the books at all regarding camera usage in courtrooms.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Wisconsin, which permits three television and three still camera operators to be in courts with approval from the judge. Mississippi is also highly permissive when it comes to camera use in state courts; individual use of one television camera, one video recorder, one audio recording system and one still camera is permitted in the same courtroom given at least two days notice to the presiding judge.

Only a few states explicitly permit use of electronic devices, and even then, intended use of the device, whether for note taking or reporting, makes a difference in the permissibility of its use. Reporters in Nevada, for example, can freely use electronic devices for note taking, but need to get judge approval before using those same devices to live blog or broadcast court proceedings. In other states, reporters’ use of electronic devices is limited to cameras and audio recorders used for note taking.

Thirty-five states explicitly permit use of cameras in courtrooms, while 14 other states partially allow camera use depending upon the circumstances. In the majority of states that explicitly permit camera usage, only one videographer and one photographer can be in the courtroom at any time. (For more specifics, see the Radio Television Digital News Association’s State-by-State Guide).

The District of Columbia is the lone region of the United States that outright bans camera usage in the courtrooms in its jurisdiction. Thirty-five states allow some form of audio or video webcast from the court as well, though those 35 states are not all the same 35 that explicitly permit use of cameras; some states that only allow camera use in specific circumstances have also allowed webcasts under special circumstances.

While Joan Kenney, the SJC’s public information officer, has said that Rule 1:19 is still a “work in progress,” Massachusetts is leaps and bounds ahead of other states and sets a strong example of how a state judiciary might handle electronic access to the courtroom. Considering the successes of the OpenCourt project in particular while it lasted, regular live streaming and blogging, citizen journalism reporting and camera usage in courtrooms can become the norm of courtrooms in Massachusetts.

“It [OpenCourt] was a pilot project scheduled to last for a particular period of time, and intended to explore different issues that came up in the context of introducing full-time video recording into courtrooms,” said Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project. “In that regard, I think it was a tremendous success,”

While Massachusetts might lag behind some states in terms of access to the courts, the new updates to Rule 1:19 have ultimately been a victory for Massachusetts press freedom.

“I think the SJC, that court, started to come to the realization that the rules on technology in the courts were outmoded if not even nonexistent for the most part,” said Ambrogi of the Rule 1:19 updates. “I think this was seen as an opportunity to modernize the rules to apply to the kind of technology that reporters are using today. I think it’s also an attempt to recognize that even the definition of a reporter is changing and to acknowledge the idea that … bloggers and citizen journalists can also be members of the news media as well.”

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Rule 1:19 Subcommittee’s biggest challenge was defining ‘journalist’

After the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court approached the judiciary-media committee a few years ago requesting recommendations for updates to Rule 1:19, the Rule 1:19 subcommittee focused in on two fundamental points, said Neil Ungerleider, who co-chaired the subcommittee with Justice John Curran, now retired from Leominster District Court.

“One is that the nature of who is a journalist has changed, and secondly, the change in technology has allowed the use of electronic equipment in a way that was never before possible, and how if at all were we going to accommodate that,” Ungerleider said in a March 12 interview. “The second part was actually a little easier to deal with than the first part, the question of electronic access … The larger issue became deciding who is a journalist, and how was some order going to be brought to that process so that the people who claimed to be journalists actually were, as opposed to people just showing up off the street saying they were a journalist.”

Ungerleider, the general judiciary-media committee co-chair and the manager for WCVB-TV Digital, said it was important to extend access to citizen journalists. He sees professional and citizen journalists as the same.

“There really shouldn’t be a difference,” he said. “They [professional journalists] may reach more people, but why is a reporter for the Boston Globe more important than someone writing a weekly community blog or column or runs a community website in Winchester? Why should that person be less important? It’s kind of contrary to the First Amendment, if you will. Freedom of the press applies to everybody.”

Massachusetts has historically been progressive when it comes to cameras in the courts, having the original Rule 1:19 on the books since the 1980s, Ungerleider said. The subcommittee therefore tried to make the language in the rule as inclusive as possible, to define “even the smallest journalist,” he said.

Ultimately, the SJC approved a rule defining the “news media” as “organizations that regularly gather, prepare, photograph, record, write, edit, report or publish news or information about matters of public interest for dissemination to the public in any medium, whether print or electronic, and to individuals who regularly perform a similar function.”

Taking that view, the Rule 1:19 subcommittee then debated how to accommodate journalists of all kinds, Ungerleider said. Some subcommittee members favored a credentialing process, especially expressing fears that gang members could intimidate witnesses, he said. The subcommittee eventually chose a registration approach instead, requiring news organizations and citizen journalists to fill out a form and submit it to the Public Information Office.

“There is that safeguard, if you will, that the registration process was designed to put in place so that a gang member can’t bring an iPhone into the courtroom,” he said. “A reporter can because they’ve showed the registration when they go in if they’re asked for it.”

Since the updates went into effect in September 2012, Ungerleider has said he’s seen a positive reception from WCVB-TV readers and viewers who can get live updates from the courtroom. Since reporters can use electronic devices such as laptops, cell phones and tablets in reporting from the courtroom, live blogging and Tweeting a trial as it is in progress can put news consumers in the middle of the judicial proceedings as they happen.

“The ability of our reporters to do that is very much welcomed and appreciated on our website because [readers] come … in pretty significant numbers,” Ungerleider said. “The expectation on the part of people who are looking for news has changed. They expect it in real time. They expect it with immediacy. They expect it when it’s happening. And the rule change has allowed us to do that.”

The ability to live blog judicial proceedings is somewhat unique to Massachusetts, Ungerleider said. Blogging, citizen journalism of proceedings and other new reporting ventures possible thanks to technology have transformed Massachusetts reporters’ expectations of covering the courts.

Additionally, the updates to Rule 1:19 coincidentally lined up with the emergence of Twitter and live blogging in reporting, coming at “just the right time,” he said

“It’s easy for reporters who work in this state to forget that the access that they have is really unique and that while some states have cameras, this may be one of the few of only states that allow the use of the electronic devices,” Ungerleider said. “That’s something that’s not happening anywhere else in the country. So this is a very unique set of circumstances that exist in this state.”