Report by UWE Bristol academics highlights implications for the future of open justice in a digital world based on research with journalists covering criminal courts during COVID-19

Posted on
Statue of Lady Justice

A new report has been released by academics at UWE Bristol which looks at the experiences of journalists reporting on criminal courts during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Building on years of experience researching Law and Media, Dr Tom Smith; Dr Sally Reardon; Marcus Keppel-Palmer and Dr Bernhard Gross interviewed journalists to provide a unique insight into the unprecedented challenge of  covering online criminal courts during the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report considers the way in which courts and information on hearings were accessed by journalists; the routines of court reporters in this new context; and their perceptions of the maintenance of the principle of open justice during a time of emergency. The report explores this by detailing the self-reported experiences and insights of reporters, obtained through interviews.

They found that while most reporters believed that online courts afforded greater opportunities to access a greater range of hearings, the loss of face-to-face contact meant that traditional approaches to newsgathering in criminal courts – such as the ability to follow up on matters arising in hearings and the maintenance of key relationships – were significantly challenged. This arguably had negative implications for the quality and depth of reporting on criminal cases, with a potential impact on open justice. The report concludes that online hearings do have significant implications for open justice (albeit complex ones) and makes various recommendations which should be acted on in light of the expansion of online justice beyond the crisis of the pandemic.

Dr Tom Smith, one of the co-authors of the report commented:

The system wasn’t perfect, but our research shows that journalists and court officials worked really hard at making sure that closing court rooms to the public didn’t mean closing justice to public scrutiny in this moment of crisis. In the long run, though, with more and more justice proceedings likely to move online and stay out of court rooms, it’s important to put systems and checks in place that uphold and facilitate open justice in this new normal.

Dr Sally Reardon, another of the co-authors commented:

“One thing that struck me is how journalists mentioned that, “yes, sometimes being kind of there was made easier by being online” but also stressed how important it was for them to be in the court room. So much of their reporting also relies on the relationships they’ve built over time. This just highlights that it’s not one or the other. It’s not fully online or fully in-real-live. Both have their pros and cons.”

The full report can be found here: ‘An endlessly strange experience’: Experiences of media reporting on criminal courts during the Covid-19 pandemic

Part of this research was funded by the ACE-FBL Connecting Research Scheme, which encourages interdisciplinary work between academics in the faculties of Arts, Cultural Industries & Education and Business & Law.

Back to top