Thom Barker

Covering the courts is a public service (not to mention fascinating)

Thom Barker reflects on why he both loves and believes it is important to cover the justice system

Ever since I first walked into the Smithers courthouse in 2005, I have loved covering the courts. It is, by far, my favourite part of this job. If I could, I would be in court every day.

Unfortunately, community newspaper reporters also have to cover town councils, school boards, health authorities, cultural events, ribbon cuttings, cheque presentations and perfect cribbage hands.

Suffice it to say, it is not easy to do coverage of the justice system justice in a small town. Consequently, it is little wonder most community newspaper reporters hate doing it. Even without constraints, it is a time-consuming and extremely complex undertaking fraught with potential pitfalls including getting into legal trouble yourself.

There is always the concern of libel for forgetting to use your CYA words such as ‘alleged’ and ‘the accused.’ I have been threatened with lawsuits more than once, although they have never gone beyond intimidation.

There is also the risk of inadvertently contravening a publication ban. I got a letter from the attorney general of Saskatchewan one time demanding we remove a story from our website because I named the minor victim of an abduction and sexual assault. The crazy thing about that was the case was more than a decade old and the story was about the victim, now an adult, making a public appearance educating children about how to stay safe. The publication ban had never been lifted, however, and can only be lifted by the victim or his counsel making an application to the court.

Then there are the phone calls from drug dealers complaining that you ruined their life by splashing their name on the front page. Oddly, I cannot think of a single time it was me and not them who sold the dope to the undercover police officer.

And, of course, I always worry about getting it right because people’s lives are at stake and there are plenty of things we don’t report on simply because there is a difference between the public’s right to know and the public interest.

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The pitfalls notwithstanding, I still love it. Aside from being fascinating, I think it is one of the most important functions of the fourth estate. A fair and open justice system is a foundational principle of a fair and democratic society. And the media is the conduit between the courts and the public, especially since the public generally don’t go to court anymore.

When you look at newspaper archives from a century ago, if there was a high profile trial, the whole town would go out to take it in. Now, it is pretty much lawyers, clerks, witnesses, sheriffs and perhaps a few observers who were directly affected by the crime.

That’s a shame because the whole concept of open courts is fostering public confidence in the administration of justice.

I am a big fan of the justice system. It has been my experience over almost 15 years of covering it that police generally arrest the right people, courts generally convict the right people, judges are generally fair with their decisions and prosecutors and defence attorneys generally work pretty well together to achieve a reasonable balance between the public interest and the rights of offenders.

But, according to justice system data, I am among a minority that feels that way.

There are, of course, problems with the system, and I believe it is part of my job to hold the courts accountable. I also believe, however, that part of the problem is public perception because people don’t know what is actually going on over on Alfred Avenue and in buildings like it all across the country.

Part of the responsibility for that falls on us in the media. With shrinking newsroom budgets and reluctant local journalists, we end up basically printing charges, verdicts and sentences. Without context, it is little wonder people feel like bail is too easily granted, sentences are too light and victims are neglected.

One of the conclusions of a 2016 justice system report was: “Information dissemination and public access to data can demystify the CJS (Canadian Justice System) and boost public confidence.”

And that brings me to the final reason I love covering the courts, not just charges and verdicts and sentences. It makes me feel like I am providing an important public service.

To the best of my ability, and given the constraints of a community newsroom, I intend to be your eyes and ears, Smithers.

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