Debate Magazine

The Fourth Estate And The Courts Issue

By Kelly058
The local press has done a good job informing the public on the events and comments made by all sides relate to the courts issue. However, is reporting on events and quoting officials enough? The issues surrounding the courts have now been under discussion for a little over five years. Have city residents been provided sufficient information to come to an informed conclusion? Based on conversations with residents, following on-line discussions, and e-mails, a lot of questions remain. The question before us is what should we realistically expect from the press in covering an issue of this complexity?
It should be made clear that informing the public on issues like the courts rests with elected officials. While we cannot expect those officials to vote the way we want them to; we can, and should, expect them to make their positions clear, address the pros and cons of a particular action, answer questions, and address concerns. Most would expect the role of the press should be to provide background, clarify positions, at times question those positions, and insure all questions and concerns are addressed. Using this criteria let's review some examples of the press coverage on the Council's last work session with Judge Willis.
FredericksburgPatch, a new on-line news source, provided a good overview of the comments made at the meeting. Judge Urges Action on Court Facilities--
http://fredericksburg.patch.com/articles/judge-urges-action-on-court-facilities
However, the story did not go beyond just quoting the participants, leaving a lot of questions unanswered. The Vice-Mayor stated, "We have the potential to handle substantial debt," said Greenlaw, noting that the cost to borrow money is "about as cheap as it's ever going to be." This statement begs a number of questions. How does the Vice-Mayor support her position that the city can handle substantial debt? How is this debt going to be paid for? What impacts will taking on this debt have on other city projects and on the city bond rating?
Judge Willis was quoted as saying in regard to the city providing new court facilities, "It's also a legal obligation," said Willis. "If you neglect your lawful obligations, there can be repercussions." Again, no follow-up. What repercussions? Was Judge Willis referring to state code 15.2-1643? What are his views on the General Assembly's vote to place a moratorium on judicial action as outlined in 15.2-1643 through 2012? And most importantly--What exactly are a locality's obligation to the courts?
In the Free-Lance Star story, Long-Term Court Fix Urged,
http://www.fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2011/012011/01122011/600259
the reader is given a good overview of the meeting to include pointing out some inaccuracies in statements made. It was pointed out in the story that Judge Willis' statement related to a possible regional option was inaccurate. "Willis discouraged council members from spending time looking at developing a regional courts system with a neighboring locality to share some of that burden. "I think you're going to find it's not possible." The reporter did note that in fact there exist regional court facilities in the state. However, there is no further clarification-- Is it a realistic option for the city? What is the status of court needs in Spotsylvania and Stafford our potential partners? How do the other regional court systems work? Are they really cost effective?
Judge Willis was also quoted regarding rising case loads, "Willis said the system is already exceeding those projections by five years, as the Interstate 95 corridor and the density of housing--particularly rental properties--in the city drive crime rates up." Some follow-up questions to ask--Are there procedural changes that could impact case loads? What impacts will technology have on courts in the future? What impact has unfilled judgeships had on caseloads?
Both stories provided a good overview of what was discussed at the meeting. What I believe is missing is accountability on the part of the participants to justify their positions and have them tested. What is not being discussed is also an issue. A number of legitimate questions have been asked regarding the courts that remain unanswered. Because the stories focus on the particulars of the meeting, and are limited to the comments made, other questions are not being addressed. The participants seem to control the story. If they don't talk about it it's not going to be covered.
It should be pretty clear from the number of questions that could be asked from the few examples provided that this is a complex issue and we cannot expect to see everything covered in a single story. However, that does not preclude follow-up stories focusing on one aspect of the courts debate. To date most stories seem to have been driven by meetings and not by an effort to explain a complex issue to the public.
These observation are not a reflection on the reporters themselves. One has to be impressed with how a reporter can write a news story understanding that they are subject to deadlines, cooperation of the individuals involved in the story, space limitations, competing stories, and the whims of editors. A number of these limitations are outside the reporters direct control--You can't make someone answer a question for example. Also it should be understood that the length, subject and angle of a story is ultimately in the hands of an editor. Some important decisions concerning coverage of the courts issue will have to come from a higher level.
This brings us back to the question of what we can realistically expect from the press on covering a story like this? It should be understood that I have no background in journalism and have no specific answers regarding what we should expect--only more questions. I'm hoping others with more experience and talent will put their two cents into this discussion.
For my part, acknowledging that I am getting a bit redundant, the courts issue is potentially the most expensive capital project in the city's history. Embarking on it at a time of great economic uncertainty has serious implications to the city's future well being. The issue deserves a thorough debate and the reality is the press has a part to play. Not only of informing the public on what is being said; but more importantly, making sure all the questions are being asked, and answered.
What is your opinion of the press coverage of the courts issue?

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