Here’s a news flash: the wheels of justice turn slowly. If you’ve spent any time covering the courts, you’ve seen ample evidence of this fact. The result? Trials are drawn out, alleged criminals are tapped out (lawyers don’t come cheap, after all), and victims are out-and-out amazed that they’ve been drawn into a system that can intrude on their lives for years on end as a case makes its way from initial investigation to last avenue of appeal. This slow march to completion of a criminal case or civil dispute is one of the most criticized aspects of the legal system.
That’s not to say that a slow, methodical process is by definition a bad one–work refined over the course of years can benefit greatly as a result. Professor Dean Jobb’s text Media Law for Canadian Journalists is an example of instructive and engaging writing, borne and developed over time. The ideas and methodology that inform the book are drawn from Dean’s 15 years of teaching media law and justice system fundamentals to students in the journalism program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, and more than 20 years as an award-winning newspaper reporter.
Before the accolades, let me provide a necessary bit of disclosure: This text is required reading in the course I currently teach at King’s College – I picked up where Dean left off, teaching “The News Media & the Courts.” I’ve known Dean Jobb for more than a decade, back when we both covered the criminal courts.
I only wish I had this text back then–it’s only now, with the benefit of hindsight (and a law degree) that I realize how little I knew when I was first sent to court. I had no training, and had never even seen the inside of a courtroom prior to covering my first high-profile trial. My experience is not unique. Despite the complexity of legal proceedings and the potential for costly and damaging errors due to inaccurate reportage, the court beat is often thrust upon neophyte reporters. Media Law for Canadian Journalists is an invaluable reference for journalists who cover the courts and journalists who want to stay OUT of court – that is, not getting sued or cited for contempt.
Dean is particularly adept at figuring out how much detail his audience needs to understand a significant bit of case law or legal principle. But he resists the temptation to get bogged down in the abysmally arcane aspects of legal reasoning. After all, this is a text for journalists, not lawyers.
The text covers the basics of how the courts function, including the distinction between criminal and civil law, and the nature, scope and function of different types of publication bans; how to avoid getting sued for defamation or cited for contempt of court, as well how to gain access to hearings, documents and records.
When it comes to reporting on court proceedings, there’s little that’s intuitive, so Dean educates his readers through real-life examples, showing where reporters’ assumptions of what was happening and why caused them to miss the point entirely. Among the many common misapprehensions and mistakes laid bare by the text are the following:
- Reporting on the maximum sentence that may be imposed for a crime without ensuring that readers understand that the maximum is rarely imposed, since it is reserved for the most serious situations and worst offenders;
In a criminal trial, there’s nothing shocking, surprising, or even unusual about the fact that an accused person may not take the stand in their own defense. After all, it’s up to the Crown to prove the case against the accused. The accused does not have the responsibility of disproving the Crown’s case; and
When criminal charges against an accused person do not proceed because a court determines that evidence was obtained in a way that violated the accused’s Charter rights, reporters should not frame this as “a mere technicality.” Holding police to the standards set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is of benefit to us all.
If, at a minimum, all new crime and justice reporters were required to read the chapters that explain how the courts work, and how to cover the criminal courts, the most common blunders would be avoided.
One critical lesson the text brings home to my students is that they may well face legal challenges or problems from Day One on the job. These issues aren’t solely the concern of investigative journalists or highly-placed newsroom decision-makers. The most routine of assignments may give rise to an opportunity to challenge an existing law or policy or, conversely, to find oneself in contempt or facing a defamation action. One striking example Dean uses to make this point is that of a local newspaper reporter assigned to cover a police sergeant’s remarks at a conference, where the sergeant spoke of possible connections between Hells’ Angels and two small-town Nova Scotia motorcycle groups. The reporter diligently reported the officer’s comments–undoubtedly operating under the misapprehension that all was safe. I mean, the officer said it himself, didn’t he? And then, to make the story even sexier, the editor who reviewed the story (who was also apparently oblivious to the defamatory nature of the sergeant’s comments) set up the story with the following headline: “Watch Out For Big-Time Crime: Criminal Gangs Affect Us All, Police Warn.”
Dean effectively employs this example as a jumping-off point for an explanation of the murky area of defamation law that is as lucid and accessible as any I’ve ever read. This career journalist doesn’t let his years in the reporting trenches colour his assessment of defamation law. Many members of the media (as well as the lawyers who represent them) often fret about “libel chill,” a concept Jobb defines as one in which “important stories are toned down or ignored for fear of attracting an expensive defamation suit.” Let me be clear: Prof. Jobb has little time for these whiners; instead, he tells journalists to suck it up (OK, those are my words, not his) and to practice their craft more effectively. They should do so not by living in fear of lawsuits, but by using the integral intellectual tools of skepticism, restraint, and precision.
Maybe it’s because Dean is exercising the very restraint he preaches, or perhaps it’s that I’m more cynical than he, but I do believe the text is lacking a frank description of how some of the major players in the system tend to view the media. I know judges, lawyers, and court support staff who understand the role of media in a free and democratic society. I have observed and, in some cases, met and interviewed victims, plaintiffs and defendants in high-profile civil cases and even criminal accused who likewise understand their role in the public sphere.
But, during my time covering the courts, I have also had many negative interactions. I have been confronted gatekeepers who act capriciously, who are motivated by self-interest, who ignore the role of media as public surrogate, or who are simply irked that the media are intruding on THEIR turf. I’ve heard learned judges suggest that my work is solely about my self-interest in garnering more viewers, or crafting more inflammatory headlines–not about informing people and shining a bright light on a system that is of concern to us all. I have had to bite my tongue as I listen to yet another lawyer make yet another sweeping statement about the nature of media–observations based on a single experience with “some reporter” (there’s never a name–reporters are all alike to them) many years ago. I’ve been spit on (and yes, I mean that literally) by criminal defendants, and jostled and threatened by their supporters in court house foyers.
Covering the court beat is fascinating. The issues are challenging, and the stories are rife with human drama. For journalists who understand their role as educators, it can be a satisfying environment in which to learn, and to share. But it’s often not a pleasant environment. I’m not sure that Media Law for Canadian Journalists paints an appropriately accurate/bleak a picture of the environment many new legal affairs reporters will face. But, hey, they’ll sort that out on their own soon enough, won’t they?
When my students eventually face that reality, they will have the tools, and the understanding of how the system works, thanks to Dean’s efforts. I anticipate this text will sit on their desks, closely-guarded and well-thumbed, as they make their own way through the system.