Reporters Learn to Navigate Restrictions on Tight-Lipped Courts Beat

By Chris Adams

Stop and think – before you publish.

It’s good advice for any beat and particularly apt for coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court and federal courts, where the pressure to instantly determine what something means is constant, and potentially counterproductive.

“My advice: Take a step back,” said Amy Howe, a former editor and current contributor to the influential legal website SCOTUSblog. “I’m sure your editor wants you to get something as quickly as possible. But your editor can wait.” The marginal advantage of going live 30 seconds before somebody else, she said, is outweighed by the real risk of getting something wrong.

Howe (blog, Twitter) was joined by Robert Barnes (Twitter, stories), Supreme Court reporter for The Washington Post, in giving National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows an overview of how to cover the highest court in the land. Barnes, too, counseled caution: “Your editors will say ‘What does this mean?’ and sometimes the answer will be ‘I don’t know.’” Sometimes the court decides cases on a very narrow basis – and the temptation to overreach will be strong, he said. Avoid it.

Howe and Barnes gave practical tips journalists can use if they are dropping in on the court for occasional stories tied to their beats. They discussed the different stages of a court case, from the initial decision to take the case, to oral arguments to the opinion.

Barnes discussed how to stay on top of the beat, particularly when news consumers want opinion stories right now. Barnes prepares draft stories ahead of time, publishing as soon as possible after an opinion is out and the draft can be updated. That story is then further updated throughout the day.

One thing to do before decision day: Read the lower court opinion that the court is reviewing; it will likely do a good job laying out the facts of the case.

Fellows also heard from two reporters on how to cover federal courts. And like the Supreme Court, the key for covering federal court s is preparation. Jessica Gresko of The Associated Press (Twitter) and Zoe Tillman of BuzzFeed News (Twitter, stories) talked about how the rules for court coverage vary widely; what’s allowed in one federal court is prohibited in a neighboring federal court.

Tillman also offered tips on covering the courts on a shoestring budget. If you can’t travel to a hearing, some federal judges will allow people to listen in on an audio line. Tillman asks judges if they’ll do so for cases she’s covering; while most of the time the answer is no, sometimes it’s yes. (The audio technology exists to allow lawyers to listen in.)

For reporters who can’t afford the costs of legal research firms Lexis-Nexis or PACER, there’s a nonprofit called the RECAP Project – RECAP being PACER backwards – that will share PACER documents with other users once it has been downloaded by one member.

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