As a reporter, you have wide access to courtrooms in our state, but you must be aware there are clearly-laid-out rules to follow, and you need to familiarize yourself with them. Be aware that Federal Courts do not allow photography of any kind.
The first thing you need to know before you cover any court procedure in your area is the name of your media coordinator and how to get in touch with him or her, because they’re your gateway to covering the courts, and you can find a list of media coordinators along with their e-mail and phone numbers online. The media coordinators can help you arrange for sound and/or video recording, and can give you tips about the particular courtroom you’re assigned to cover. If you make a rookie mistake and call a judge or county circuit court directly to set up coverage, they’ll likely just tell you to contact the area media coordinator. The judge is in charge of the courtroom, but the media coordinator is your first contact.
Judges can rule that only one microphone and one camera can be in the courtroom, and whether you’re going on your first assignment in the court or you’ve been there plenty of times before, your first contact should be with the media coordinator. Highly visible cases can mean there are changes in the “usual” rules for any courtroom, and the media coordinator will have worked things out for the media in advance. Be ready to be flexible!
Remember that the media coordinator sometimes has a tough job. If there’s a huge murder case or a civil case involving high-profile people or lots of money, the media coordinator has to run interference for you. Few things irritate judges and courthouse personnel and security as much as media representatives quarreling over “who gets to be where”. Whether you’re a one-person news department or a representative of a national network, a little bit of cooperation will go a long way.
Be courteous. Everybody involved has something at stake. In a criminal case, the D-A wants a successful prosecution; the defendant wants to be vindicated; the victim wants justice; you want a story; and the judge has to balance everyone’s rights and needs.
Be conscious of security needs. Don’t get defensive if a deputy or court official wants to examine your recorder or camera or equipment bag. One quick way to get on the bad side of courtroom personnel is to try to jump the line to get through security ahead of other people.
You should know the answers to basic questions before you make a call to the media coordinator to arrange for coverage. What rights do you have as a reporter? How much power does the judge have to tell me what I can and can’t cover? Who and what can I photograph or record? Can I attend a juvenile proceeding? Can I conduct an interview in the courthouse?
Questions like these are why the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in 1997, established rules and guidelines for judges and the media. You can read the actual guidelines. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council’s very helpful and detailed website also has a link to the text of the Supreme Court rules, and links to the particular rules for each county court in the state, and a link to the Wisconsin News Photographers Association’s Bill of Rights. Although it’s geared to newspaper photographers and TV journalists, radio reporters will find it worth reading to learn a great deal about rights and responsibilities.