Many journalists in Uganda started their careers on the court beat. Misguided editors, believing that the best way to break into the business is by listening to long, boring court sessions, send youth reporters off to the courts in the droves.
It is a great way to start any journalist’s career, but also a brilliant way to end it. Why? Many journalists are stuck in a rut, reporting the events of a case unfolding before them and being spoon-fed by court clerks. This results into incidental, anecdotal, forgettable reports.
Court reporters are rarely challenged to think outside the box. They are turned into fire brigade reporters, responding only to events – never allowed to analyze, to discuss, to breathe, to grow.
At the end of important trials, audiences are not more knowledgeable about the court system, they don’t understand the merits of the case and the days reporters spent seated on the hard court benches are turned into pub tales, that disappear as quickly as they came.
What to do? What to do?!!
My suggestion is that Ugandan journalists on the court beat recognize the fact that court cases are merely one part of a lengthy judicial system. Trials, civil or criminal, cannot be reported in isolation. Rulings are not the end of the matter.
- Profile of judges, magistrates, lawyers, and other players in the courts, particularly if these individuals are going to be or have been playing a high-profile role in newsworthy cases.
- Compare sentencing practices of individual judges to determine if some judges impose harsher sentences than others.
- Expand a story about a particular civil case to discuss broader issues, such as freedom of speech by government employees, housing discrimination, job discrimination. For example, have lawsuits changed the law under which companies hire and fire employees?
- Compare reversal rates for judges by examining appellate opinions.
- Examine how the Directorate of Public Prosecution operates. Are the staff qualified? Underpaid?
- Profile a victims’ rights advocacy group.
- Have changes in sentencing laws contributed to a drop/rise in the crime rate?
- Law enforcement records regarding payments to informants are public record.
- Are there laws on the books that are simply being ignored? If so, why? Are these laws so old and outdated that they are unenforceable? Do police ever charge people under these statutes?
For more story ideas on reporting on courts, visit the Criminal Justice Journalist website.