Reporters go on record with advice for lawyers
By DOUG WATERS(1)
Lawyers and reporters endure many trials. For the lawyer, adversity arrives via angry clients, compounding caseloads, and gamesmanship by opposing counsel. For the reporter who covers courts, trials take the form of tight deadlines, petulant public officials, and uninspiring pay. They need not add each other to their difficulties.
Current and former reporters testify that lawyers do a public service when they assist their courtroom co-laborers. Reporters, as inherent networkers, will always welcome better communication no matter the lawyer’s motivation.
Liberty University School of Law professor Paul Spinden is uniquely qualified to discuss working relationships between reporters and lawyers. Having viewed courtrooms from both sides of the bar, he sees many parallels between the professions.
“The skills that you hone in journalism are the same skills that make you a successful attorney,” Spinden said, noting that assessing issues in terms of “who, what, where, when, and why is critical thinking, which is what being a journalist is about.”
Spinden spent six years as an attorney at the Missouri Attorney General’s office, seven years as an administrative law judge, and 17 years as a Missouri Court of Appeals judge. Prior to trekking this legal trail, he worked for several years in a radio station’s newsroom and later as a general assignment and courts reporter for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri.
“Sometimes attorneys could be impatient with my lack of understanding. I didn’t know a motion in limine from a summary judgment,” he said, describing early reporting experiences. Moreover, “there were attorneys who flat out refused to talk to me.”
Spinden soon learned the nuances of the courts beat, such as discerning attorneys’ attempts to use the newspaper for their own ends and how to confirm facts without asking direct questions.
The considerable effort Spinden invested in winning lawyers’ trust earned him better background information for stories. Thus, it was unnerving when big city brethren—reporters from Kansas City and St. Louis—showed no concern for burning legal bridges after exiting Springfield courtrooms.
“The last thing I wanted to do was burn my sources,” Spinden said.
The federal prosecutors he interviewed the most each required a different tact: “One was cautious in a maddening way,” he said, while another “didn’t seem to have any restraints. He was a reporter’s dream.”
Spinden credits a couple lawyers, as well as his wife, with pushing him to pursue law school. Reporting on court proceedings also served as a useful career-change primer.
“I covered enough trials to say, ‘yeah, I can do that,’” he said.
As a lawyer, Spinden was willing to reach out to reporters. “While I was sympathetic, I was also leery at times. I had to have that relationship first,” he said.
Spinden advises attorneys to be cordial and to return reporters’ calls. Attorneys should also try to restrict their comments to the public record and what transpired in the courtroom, which is not always obvious to non-lawyers. Questions that seek speculative analysis, like whether the attorney thinks a witness is lying, should go unanswered, whereas straightforward inquiries about future proceedings are fair game.
Even as a judge, Spinden sought to assist reporters. When he felt constrained to talk, he would often have a court clerk return reporters’ calls to explain his reason for not commenting. This demonstrated a “good-faith effort” to work with them, he said.
“I had to be very careful not to appear partial in any way,” Spinden said. “But by the same token, I was anxious to answer factual questions, procedural matters.”
MY JOURNALISM JOURNEY
Between “J-school”(2) and law school, this writer cut his teeth at a Kentucky paper with a novel name—The Daily News. As the regional reporter, I roamed several counties compiling off-the-beaten-path stories. For example, I covered a fiscal court meeting during which a judge lambasted local politicians for initiating an eminent domain swipe of her home. I also stumbled into quirky topics, like a paralyzed guinea pig left in a library shortly after Christmas; his new owners christened him “Tiny Tim.”
But nothing quite compared to trips to rural courtrooms—stomping grounds for the legal system’s pointy-shoed showmen. I held them in high regard, despite the best efforts by a few to personify lawyer-joke stereotypes. Thankfully, most treated me with respect and took time to confirm facts.
My final newspaper stop before law school was Lynchburg’s The News & Advance, where I edited articles and designed pages. There, I worked with courts reporter Chris Dumond and republished wire stories(3) written by Rex Bowman, then a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter.
PUBLIC SERVICE PARTNERS
Dumond, 30, recalls covering his first court case in 2000 with the Loudoun Times-Mirror (Leesburg, Va.). He has worked for five newspapers. Bowman, 49, has worked for 10 newspapers, including The Washington Times, after breaking into the business in 1986. The Roanoke native now covers courts, among other responsibilities, for The Roanoke Times.
These veteran news scribes culled some tips for lawyers who wish to improve rapport with reporters.
Dumond likens his job to being a fly on the wall at courthouses, where he represents most of the public who often cannot attend. Lawyers should keep in mind that courts are an intimidating place for everyone else, including reporters, he said.
Bowman said that sensationalizing news is not a reporter’s goal; rather, the aim is to tell an “interesting story accurately.” While lawyers are not obligated to assist reporters, he said, they should offer a reason when declining to comment out of professional courtesy.
Dumond said five-to-10 minutes of follow-up conversation can make a big difference to reporters, who are increasingly spread thin by newsroom attrition. Thus, when a reporter “comes up to you starry-eyed and bewildered,” he may not have been in court for a few weeks, Dumond noted.
“You need to be patient with us. Attorneys can do a public service by taking time to explain [court issues] to the reporter because the reporter is just a conduit to the community,” he said.
Dumond recommends for lawyers to downshift from oral-argument mode when speaking to reporters. He said reporters prefer an “I’m not in a position to comment” to speculation because they are tasked with writing accurate stories. As such, reporters are on guard for “hyperbole and arguments presented as fact,” he said.
Bowman added, “If you don’t know something, don’t pretend you do.”
Both reporters encouraged defense attorneys not to be bashful. Dumond said his job is to report what happens at hearings, and he sometimes makes an extra effort to talk to defense counsel. Yet, Bowman noted, “We still get paid if the opposing lawyer decides to call back or not.”
From arrest to preliminary hearing to grand jury, if a defense attorney does not comment, “he’s allowed the prosecution to set the public perception by the time he comes to court,” Bowman said. “The story is coming out no matter what. You have a chance to have some input.”
Attorneys often say they don’t want to try their case “in the press,” Bowman said, but “that’s just a false analogy. You have nothing to lose by getting your client’s story out.”
Dumond said attorneys for the state, whether prosecutors or public defenders, tend to be the most accessible because they are motivated to serve the public.
Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Krantz is one of several area lawyers who makes time for reporters. Even when Krantz appears frustrated by certain questions, it never goes beyond an “eyebrow twitch—he’s
extremely patient,” Dumond said.
Bowman said he would not feel insulted if a lawyer asked him whether he understood a legal term in their conversations. For example, he was grateful early in his career when a lawyer explained Alford pleas(4) to him.
Dumond has an in-house resource: his wife, Jessie, an attorney with the Lynchburg Public Defender’s Office. He consults her legal dictionaries and law school books.(5) For ethical reasons, however, he tries not to talk to her in a professional capacity and does not cover cases on which she’s working.
Reporters respect lawyers’ expertise, and Bowman for one enjoys watching certain lawyers in action. In fact, “reporters can forgive lawyers any kind of rude behavior if they’re good lawyers,” he said. However, “I sometimes do get the sense that lawyers underestimate the intelligence of reporters.”
A law degree is not a license to be condescending to other professionals, Bowman said. Like lawyers, journalists follow an ethics code,(6) and most studied Supreme Court cases in college-journalism courses.
“I’m sure we do understand libel law as well as any attorney,” Bowman said. “We’re not like bloggers and pontificators.”
THEY FOUGHT THE LAW
The long arm of the law sometimes puts reporters in the spotlight, despite their desire not to become news themselves. Bowman and Dumond have their war stories.
Bowman was named as a defendant in a $20 million lawsuit when he covered courts for a California newspaper. He estimates the paper spent $20,000 in the process of getting the
complaint dismissed. In another case, Bowman was deposed after a rival newspaper sued a city for not cooperating with a Freedom of Information Act(7) request.
“It was excruciatingly painful going through my notes and what was in print,” Bowman said, expressing relief that his hand-written notes matched what got published. “Lawyers have a way of making you feel like you’re the defendant, even if you’re a third-party witness.”
In 2002, Dumond said he was forced to contemplate career suicide—betraying a confidential source—or jail at a time when he was “dreadfully sick with mono.” He was held in contempt of court for not revealing his source and given two weeks to comply. Fortunately, his burden was lifted when his source came forward without prompting.(8)
“Professionally, I was obligated to take it all the way,” he said. “I went from young cockiness to genuine fear pretty quick.”
‘A GRAND WAY TO EARN A LIVING’
Lawsuits and depositions have not derailed either reporter from the courts beat.
Bowman said he likes covering trials because the whole story is contained in one courthouse—lawyers provide parallel accounts, witnesses spell out their names, and the paperwork is there.
Inquiries about Bowman’s editorial aspirations are inevitable after more than two decades of reporting, but he is quick to dismiss such questions.
“Reporting is where the action is,” Bowman said, matter-of-factly.
That sentiment would likely draw a concurring opinion from Judge Spinden, who regards his reporting days as an exciting, formative chapter of his life.
“There are many times I’ve missed it. I’ve never had as much fun as when I was a reporter,” Spinden said. “It’s a grand way to earn a living.”
Summarizing stories for headlines, writing tersely and persuasively, and separating significant facts from irrelevant details are part of a journalist’s portfolio, he said.
That training followed Spinden to the bench. He compared his appeals court work to writing 90-100 term papers a year about interesting topics, which he said “sounds a whole lot like journalism to me—I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much.”
(1) Waters, Class of 2011, is founding Editor-in-Chief of Liberty Legal Journal and a former newspaper reporter.
(2) Common nickname for college journalism programs.
(3) Bowman’s articles were distributed by Media General Inc., which owns The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The News & Advance, and many other newspapers and media outlets in the Southeast.
(4) An Alford plea is not an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgment there is enough evidence to convict. North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970).
(5) Dumond’s self study reflects the serious preparation for the courts beat that many journalists undertake. Lyle Denniston recommends “some directed reading—directed by a practicing attorney or an academic in the law. This, of course, could go on simultaneously with his actual coverage of the law.” Lyle Denniston, The Reporter and the Law: Techniques of Covering the Courts 54 (1992).
(6) The Society of Professional Journalists has published an ethics code: http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.
(7) 5 U.S.C.A. § 552.
(8) Dumond was subpoenaed after he wrote about a man whom federal agents arrested as a material witness to terrorism. “They wouldn’t even acknowledge he was there. The use of material-witness warrants was a big deal under the Bush administration,” Dumond said. For more information about Dumond’s dilemma, See Virginia Lawyers Weekly, “Reporter Released from Contempt Charge” (2002), http://valawyersweekly.com/blog/2002/08/12/reporter-released-from-contempt-charge.