Court set for media spotlight

Answers sought on digital coverage

By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / July 11, 2010

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The use of digital media has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years, transforming how people see the world. But one public institution in Massachusetts has been very cautious in embracing the new technology: the trial courts.

Now Quincy District Court will be the focus of an innovative digital media project, as public radio station WBUR-FM of Boston and the state court system explore ways to increase public access to the courts in the Internet age.

John Davidow, executive editor for, last month won a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation for his proposal to “create a laboratory’’ that would help establish best practices for digital news coverage of the courts.

Davidow and WBUR were one of 12 winners of the foundation’s international Knight News Challenge, which awarded a total of $2.7 million in its annual media innovation contest.

WBUR’s project is called Order in the Court 2.0.

While details on what exactly will be done in the project are still to be worked out, ideas range from setting aside room in the court for bloggers to streaming video of the court’s proceedings. Quincy District Court was picked because of its strong reputation as a well-run court, said Davidow.

“We have to figure out what is possible and what we can do with the resources we have,’’ said Davidow. “We have to make sure we balance the public’s right to know with the right to a fair trial, and find out where the points of friction are.’’

Journalism through the years has helped connect people to the courts, but fewer resources are available today because budget cuts have left mainstream media outlets with fewer resources, Davidow said. New digital tools can help bridge that divide, he said. People now carry digital cameras in their pockets that shoot video, audio, and stills, and could easily be used in a courtroom.

“There really hasn’t been a change in how the electronic media covers the courts since the late 1970s,’’ said Davidow, referring to TV cameras.

Judges today decide on a case-by-case basis whether streaming video or bloggers will be allowed, he said.

The project grew out of conversations during recent meetings of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee, made up of state and federal judges and members of the media from print, TV, and radio. The panel, which has existed for about 15 years, is a place for the judiciary and media to talk about issues that affect them.

The initiative has attracted national attention in legal circles, as the issue of handling new media has grown more pressing.

“We’re starting in Quincy, but the goal is to come up with an approach that courts around the country can use,’’ said Davidow.

The national Conference of Court Public Information Officers is paying close attention to the project, said Chris Davey, a cochairman of its new media committee.

The organization is in the midst of doing a national survey on the impact of new media on court systems. Right now, the only information is anecdotal, said Davey. The group hopes to use the survey results to help Davidow.

The problem with new media is that courts present a dilemma of competing interests, said Davey. “A defendant is guaranteed a fair and public trial,’’ he said. “But fair and public sometimes are difficult to reconcile, and neither can be compromised.’’

Guaranteeing due process while providing openness to the public is tricky, he said.

Mark S. Coven, the district court’s first justice, said he hoped the WBUR project could be used as a model not just in Massachusetts, but also nationally.

“It’s exciting for the entire court system to demonstrate to the public what we do, day to day,’’ he said. “I’ve always believed the more the public knows what happens in the courts, the more confidence they’ll have in the justice system.’’

Davidow said he hopes to hire a project director for the program, while he will provide oversight.

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe or followed on Twitter @GlobeMattC.