How to cover a court trial: 6 tips for journalists

As newsrooms continue to contract, some media outlets have been criticized for their diminishing coverage of the courts, including high-profile trials. As journalists move to other beats or leave their newsrooms, their institutional knowledge about how to cover trials goes with them.

Here are six tips for writers who might be new to a courtroom, and what they should do before and after they get there.

Before you go to court:

1. Make friends with everyone.

Unless you have a law degree, it’s going to be hard to understand some cases by simply reading the complaints. You don’t want to be confused when you get into the courtroom.

Lawyers will happily fill in the blanks, and they’re not hard to track down. Their contact details are in court documents, dockets or law firms’ websites. There are also Internet databases that let you look up emails and phone numbers in California, New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois, and other states.

Many lawyers can’t officially speak for their clients, but they will happily gab about a lawsuit if they know their names won’t make the news. Ask them the highlights, including the obvious: Who is suing whom? What do they want? What laws do they claim were violated?

Parties in the case often change at the last minute before trial, so be sure to ask if anyone has settled or is near settlement.

If the lawyers in the case won’t talk, try the clerk, or — on rare occasion — the judge. The clerk or judge can mostly talk about what’s happened so far in the case and what’s coming up. If they decline to talk, many lawyers who aren’t involved in the lawsuit will be happy to explain it to you if you send them a complaint.

2. Expect the unexpected.

An unpredictable schedule is one of the biggest challenges in trial coverage, according to Malaika Fraley, who covers California courts for the Contra Costa Times.

Sometimes witnesses get delayed. Opening statements run long. A judge pushes off a date of testimony.

Other times, Fraley said in a phone interview, “I’m told a trial starts at 9 a.m., and then I get there and it’s five hours of jury instruction.”

The best and often only way to know what will happen is to be present in court, Fraley said. But if you can’t go, the easiest solution is to ask someone who was there — and don’t trust just one person to get it right, she added.

An alternative is checking online calendars, which many courts have. Judges also frequently keep paper calendars with the day’s schedule outside their courtrooms.

3. Know how you will file.

Internet access isn’t a sure thing if you’re on the road. When I covered the Apple-Samsung trial in San Jose, for example, several reporters and lawyers couldn’t use the court’s free WiFi because so many people tried to log on simultaneously. After the day’s testimony ended, I went to a nearby Starbucks to write on a seven-inch tablet. My battery threatened to die and I lost part of my article multiple times because the free coffee-shop Internet failed or my tablet froze.

Before a trial starts, look for quiet places to work after a hearing and whether they have Internet. Many courts have press rooms that reporters will unlock and share. If that fails and there’s no free WiFi nearby, find out if you can tether your phone’s data plan to a laptop. Your newsroom might also have a USB Internet dongle or be willing to spring for one.

When you get to court:

4. Arrive early.

If it’s a big trial, get there at least an hour early.

Parking can be a mess, and there will also be a security checkpoint, so leave any weapons at home.

The biggest problem, though, is finding a seat. Large trials can be like a Friday night at the movies, with people saving seats for five of their friends by laying down suit jackets or binders of documents. When that happens, reporters often wind up standing awkwardly for hours in an aisle or in the back with anyone else who arrived late.

5. Cut the jargon.

Most readers don’t need a play-by-play of what happens at trial. A lot of it is routine and, more importantly, the average reader won’t know or care about all the legal terms flying back and forth. But finding those strong, memorable quotes can be a chore. A lot of mileage can be found in quotes that answer the “why” questions — why did the judge deny a motion? Why are the plaintiffs so upset in a case?

Reporters often cover only opening and closing statements because the basic, straightforward facts will be summarized during those hearings. Though that sometimes gets you in trouble.

“Things like juror and judge reaction can be difficult or impossible to gauge unless you’re physically in the courtroom, even at the really boring moments where jurors, judges and even lawyers sometimes drift off,” Politico White House and courts reporter Josh Gerstein said via email.

6. Mind your electronics.

If you bring a computer, don’t waste the whole battery typing notes during court. Bring a notepad instead. In addition to saving power, everyone will be grateful for not having to hear the clickity-clack of a keyboard.

The same goes for phones: keep them off or at least put away. Editors sometimes ask reporters to send text-message updates during trial, but this should be kept to a minimum. Phones can distract you from finding good quotes, and you also might need one later to call a source or file a story.

Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based journalist who covers Northern California courts for a legal-affairs newspaper, the Daily Journal.

More resources: AP manual on covering courts | A journalist’s guide to U.S. federal courts

NewsU Training: On the Beat: Covering the Courts

Related: 6 tips for reporters tracking state legal cases | Why the Supreme Court should allow TV cameras in the courtroom

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  • ChocoKat

    Take the time to read all available documents filed in the case — affidavits, complaints, motions, discovery documents filed by both sides. Going in blind makes it more difficult to follow along.

    Don’t discount web sleuthing sites, especially in criminal cases. They can be invaluable as reference resources since they’ll often list links to discovery documents, news accounts, lists of major players in a case, etc. Some of them have participants who will get and post copies of documents before many news outlets.