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Reporters live blogging trials: the wave of the future

Live blogging in courtrooms is no longer novel, and it’s not going away.

It makes too much sense. As newspapers become increasingly Internet-savvy and social media-friendly, court reporting is an area that can especially benefit from blogging and social networking tools.

A perfect example can be found in the recent tax fraud trial of Cedar Rapids landlord Robert Miell. When the trial was moved to Sioux City, five hours away, Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Trish Mehaffey saw the potential to provide her readership with up-to-the-minute coverage as well as make the jump to live blogging.

Fortunately for Mehaffey, the judge in question was U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett, who is known to be liberal and tech-savvy. He granted her request to sit in the back of the courtroom with her laptop, posting live updates to an interactive blog.

"I allowed it because of my belief that we are the most mysterious branch of federal government and we need to find ways to be more transparent," Bennett said. "Further, federal judges need to use technology and to allow others to use technology to assist in educating the public about our work."

Mehaffey isn’t the first reporter to live blog a trial, but she is one of few so far to get approval to do it in federal court. After her success with her first go at live blogging, she plans to do it for all her state court trials and any federal court trials she can.

"Some say it’s subjective," Mehaffey said, "but what live blogging does is give readers the chance to experience the live court action without being there. I’m not editorializing what’s happening. I’m still just the reporter of the facts. But I can describe what I see in the courtroom and hopefully make it intriguing enough for people to follow the trial."

The experience also allowed her to interact with readers, answering questions about court proceedings and legal terms. She received 500 comments for each day of the trial.

Mehaffey is aware of the criticism of live blogging, usually from lawyers who worry that it could prejudice the parties or influence jury members who could be tempted to read the updates. But, she said, the immediate benefits and positive reaction make the practice worth pursuing.

"It’s time the federal courts updated the policies and realize people want news in real time and they have to adapt with the changing times," Mehaffey said. "I’m not sure the security reasons are valid for not allowing electronic equipment and cameras into the courtroom. I understand not taking photos of jurors or of a protected witness but as for the argument that it’s distracting, it isn’t valid."

Mehaffey said she asked the jurors after the trial if she was distracting, and they said they couldn’t even hear the sound of her typing.

The distraction issue was the main concern for Judge Bennett, who said he expects to continue to allow blogging in his courtroom and hopes his colleagues will consider allowing it as well.

The biggest benefit is, he said, "greater transparency and openness of the federal court, and real time fulfillment of the public’s right to know what is going on in their federal court."

The ABA Journal also has an article on this particular trial, and Kevin has previously blogged here about lawyers live blogging in courtrooms (Denver Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeralyn Merritt) and a case study on live blogging a civil jury trial.

  • http://www.notorious-rob.com Rob Hahn

    While this is great and all, I have to ask, why the hell does someone have to be a “journalist” in order to liveblog a trial? Or seek permission from the judge?
    The rule, it seems to me, ought to be that any spectator, any attendant, should be allowed to liveblog any judicial proceeding that isn’t secret or closed-door for some compelling reason.
    There’s nothing special about Trish Mehaffey that should privilege her more than anyone else with a laptop and a WordPress account.
    This is especially true when it’s a liveblog, when “editorial oversight” is nonexistent.
    -rsh