Imperfect but open court system worth fighting for

Part of my job as a journalist for the Olds Albertan was to cover weekly court sittings at the Provincial Courthouse in Didsbury, Alberta. It was my favourite part of the job. Originally published: Mountain View Gazette, December 12, 2006.

Public courts – Democracy in action

By Faye Bayko

I was called a bitch in court today.

I didn’t take it personally, nor did I take offence.  The person who had called me a bitch was, after all, just a mother trying to protect her kids.  As a mother myself, I understood where she was coming from.  But we were in a courtroom and I was there in my role as a journalist; she was there as the wife of an accused.

The name calling had been the result of a frustrated attempt on her part to keep her husband’s name out of the newspaper by pleading that the children would take the heat at school.  It was not the first time I’d been approached by those involved in the court process.  I answered the young mother’s request the same as I had answered all of the others, I could not do as they requested.

As a reporter covering court, my job is to report on the proceedings as fairly and truthfully as possible.  What I report on and how I report it is governed by rules just like any other news coverage and I had to be careful to follow those rules or risk becoming part of the process myself with some other reporter telling my story.

There are several reasons why news media cover court proceedings. For me, it boiled down to the basic need to see justice done openly, before the public eye.  I felt it was not only important that I, as a journalist, report on crime in the community, but that I follow any results of that crime, including the journey of the accussed through the court system.

Communities need to know their justice system is working properly, of if not, how it’s breaking down.  With open reporting from incident to result everyone involved becomes aware of problems as they occur and thus have opportunities to correct any mistakes in a timely manner.

I’ve watched the ‘oh-shit’ moment cross a police officer’s face during cross-examination when he or she realized that some small thing done, or not done, by them could mean the crumbling of the case.  I’ve heard both prosecutor and defence lawyers fumble through ill-prepared arguments because case files had been passed through too many hands and crucial information had failed to follow the file, accused, or witness.  I’ve listened as judges make comments or rulings that left me dumbfounded and at a loss as to how to explain such to the paper’s readership.

While these observations may all be reasons for the public to point a finger and cry about the condition of our court system, I don’t feel that way.  I see real people filling tough roles the best way they know how.

Life is a learning process and if any one of us knew all the answers we would no longer be living here but be among the gods.

Personally, I love covering court.  I get to watch democracy played out live, unedited. These laws, these processes are what young men and women have laid down their lives for on Canadian and foreign soil.  Real-life heroes in such roles as police officers, soldiers, social workers, child-care workers, and yes even journalists, have paid the ultimate price so that this seemingly imperfect system could exist.  Their sacrifices have made it possible for anyone to sit in a public courtroom while prosecutor and defence lawyers openly argue cases before a judge, and sometimes a jury.  None of the participants are restricted because of their personal religion, race, or sex; including me.

The argument that reporting the names of those involved in the system could cause damage to others, such as family and friends, is a strong one, but we are all judged by the company we keep whether we find ourselves in a courtroom or not.  One of the first things a parent does when their child reaches their teen years is to talk about peer pressure and the costs involved.  If the person involved in the court system is a family member, then the parent has the opportunity to use the experience as a teaching tool.

It’s always hard to tell people that their mistake may become part of a local newspaper’s coverage, but, truthfully, would they really want to have a reporter or a newspaper in their community that could be influenced by such a plea as the young mother’s?  Think of what that would represent.  It would place a doubt in the reader’s mind about that reporter’s, or the newspaper’s, integrity because if they gave in to such a plea, or influence, it would make the reader wonder who else they are influenced by.  Would the reader ever be able to trust their news coverage of the town council, environmental issues, or anything involving big industry.

Once a journalist allows themselves to be influenced, it becomes easier to be influenced a second, third, fourth time.  If a journalist is unable to stand up in defence of open, honest news coverage they might as well quit and join a public relations firm.

About Author

Faye Bayko
I am a writer and photographer currently working out of Port Alberni, BC.