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American Journalism Review
Time to Open Up the Supreme Court  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2012

Time to Open Up the Supreme Court   

Live audio and video coverage could help prevent debacles like the incorrect reporting on the health care decision. Fri., June 29, 2012.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


While Chief Justice John Roberts is in the mood for surprising us, he might consider one more important move: opening the Supreme Court to live news coverage.

Much has been made about yesterday's confused and incorrect early reports, on CNN and Fox, about the court's decision on health care.

What shouldn't be overlooked is that the court's own outdated rules contributed to the confusion. The reading of the decision couldn't be broadcast live. Reporters in the courtroom couldn't record it or text about it. So they had to create almost comical relay systems to move the information from someone inside the courtroom to someone outside who could then report it.

This overly controlled and secretive protocol isn't an excuse for faulty reporting. But it certainly fosters it.

Many journalists and members of Congress have been pushing for years for the court to open its deliberations and decisions to live audio and video coverage. The arguments are conceptual (public bodies in a democracy should do their business as openly as possible), practical (the public is better off having access to information first hand and directly) and political (increased openness would likely boost interest in and respect for the court).

Yesterday's confusion shows what can happen when information spreads piecemeal and roundabout rather than straight from the source.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (led by Lucy Dalglish, soon to be dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, where I teach) and other groups had specifically, but unsuccessfully, requested that the court allow live coverage of the health care decision.

Now, it seems hard to argue convincingly that the public wouldn't have been better off with the chance to listen, live and to every word, as the justices presented their findings.

It would be wise for Roberts and his colleagues to use this case to reconsider the current restrictions on coverage. It seems increasingly clear that both the court and the public would benefit from a system that brings them closer together.

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