Tips for Journalists on Getting Stories from the Lower Courts

By Jesse Schneider

While Michael Doyle was covering legal affairs for McClatchy newspapers, he realized that court reporters often think the best stories come out of the Supreme Court. This is quite often not the case.

“There are scads of other courts that are ignored by everybody that are filled with great stories,” he said.

In a session at the National Press Foundation, Doyle walked Paul Miller fellows through his own process of court checks and offered strategies on how to mine the lower courts for story ideas.

Doyle pointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces as especially ripe for compelling stories.

“The military courts are the great uncovered treasure trove in the court system,” he said, noting that very few reporters cover them regularly. According to Doyle, the unique background of the individuals involved in cases and the presence of crimes not often seen in the civilian sector make the military courts especially attractive. He suggested going to the court’s website and scanning the “background” section of cases to check for noteworthy cases.

Using this approach, Doyle found several cases that he later turned into stories. One was about a Marine who wore parts of his uniform in pornographic videos and was charged with improper use of uniform; another was about a sergeant who was charged with indecent language for saying “mmm mmm mmm” to a female recruit.

Among Doyle’s additional tips for “striking gold” while scouring the lower courts:

  • Google a case to look for any prior coverage; if there is none, go to PACER, an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information online from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts. Note: PACER is not free to use.
  • Look for familiar names or cases that seem out of the ordinary; these often yield the best stories.
  • Reach out to both defendants and lawyers whenever possible.

And while Doyle noted the importance of small details, he emphasized paying attention to larger patterns as well.

“The individual case may be story, but also it’s the meta story that it may reveal,” he said.

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