Iowa Supreme Court Justice talks about revision to media coverage rules

Committee formed in 2012 addressed new media, best practices in courtroom

Trish Mehaffey
Published: December 21 2013 | 7:00 am - Updated: 6 March 2014 | 10:51 pm in
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Iowa Supreme Court Justice Bruce Zager, back in 2009 when he was a trial judge, didn’t allow news reporters to blog from the courtroom during a high profile case involving a mother who killed one of her children.

But he admitted earlier this month his decision may have been different if made today.

“There were no rules about it at the time,” Zager said. “It breeds fear in trial judges not to have rules or (guidance) to follow. And back in the (2009) trial, there was nothing to permit live blogging.”

Zager said being on the committee that amended the expanded media coverage (EMC) rules for Iowa court proceedings made him aware of the new techniques such as live blogging, when a news reporter covers a trial in real time and interacts with readers, used by some news organizations today, and the demand for real time or immediate coverage of trials and other court proceedings.

“It was educational for the committee to learn about the 'new media' and how (reporters) cover court proceedings,” Zager said. “The committee included judges, court administration, prosecutors and defense attorneys and representatives from the media.”

The committee was formed in 2012, and members had two all-day meetings in person and exchanged many emails in making the changes to the rules. They also invited two reporters to explain technology they used to cover courts, including live blogging, tweeting and shooting videos and photos with a cell phone.

This is the first time the EMC rules have been amended since 1979 when they were enacted, said Steve Davis, Iowa Judicial Branch communications officer. The rules were updated in 2006 and 2009 to include media coverage in appellate court proceedings, but nothing was significantly changed.

Zager pointed out the EMC rules ultimately help provide public understanding of judicial proceedings through the news media, and those rules need to stay current with the ever-changing technology, which allows the public to learn about the proceedings however they choose.

Kathleen Richardson, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said in the past few years she had heard from the EMC regional coordinators, who file requests and coordinate media coverage with the courts, about issues arising with reporters wanting to live blog or television stations wanting to live stream proceedings from the courtroom. She asked the court to consider updating the rules to address those issues and sub-committees and the main committee was formed last year.

Davis said the committee looked at the history of the EMC rules and reviewed what other states were doing in regard to news media in courts.

In May 1979, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice W. Ward Reynoldson appointed a committee to study whether cameras should be allowed in the courtrooms to help public awareness of court proceedings. Then in November of that year, the court agreed to suspend the ban against cameras for a one-year pilot program, which began Jan. 1, 1980.

In December 1980, the court extended the pilot for another year, and in 1981 the court permanently allowed cameras in the courtroom.

The original rules mainly set limits on still photos and television cameras in the courtroom but didn't addressed electronic devices.

Zager said the committee decided not to revise the entire chapter of the EMC rules but just to update specific areas that needed tweaking. Those included the time requirements for EMC filings, adding a definition of electronic devices, changing the number of devices allowed in court and a better definition of “news media.”

Some of the definitions were broadened to allow for future technology and what now constitutes expanded news media coverage — broadcasting, recording, photographing and live electronic reporting.

Zager said there was a concern about members of the public, such as a blogger not associated with a news organization, attempting to cover a court proceeding. The definition of “news media” now clarifies a person should be someone who regularly photographs, writes and reports or publishes news or information about “matters of public interest” and who applies to participate in expanded news media coverage and agrees to comply with all court rules.

According to the revised rules, EMC will be limited to the news media unless a judge orders differently. A judge also continues to have control over the courtroom and has the discretion to prohibit news media.

The other significant change is in regard to initial appearances in criminal cases, Zager said. These had been handled in different ways throughout the state and committee wanted to provide some consistency.

According to committee discussions, some judges allowed cameras in the courtroom for initial appearances, others strictly prohibited it and, in some counties, have defendants make their appearances by video from the jail and provide copies of the video to media.

There is very little time between an arrest and initial hearing, and there has been an issue of getting EMC paper copies ready and delivered to a magistrate or judge before the hearings.

Zager said the committee proposed allowing an EMC request for these hearings to be made either in writing or orally to the judge or magistrate, unless a prosecutor, defendant or a defense attorney objects.

The committee also proposed allowing all EMC requests to be filed electronically or by paper copy, in light of the fact that all court clerks’ offices are planning to be paperless by the end of 2014. The electronic document management system is now in about half the counties, and those court documents are filed electronically.

Zager said the court approved the amended changes pending public comments, which are allowed until Jan. 6.

“We are always open to comments,” Zager said. “There could be something we missed or didn’t consider, and the court is open to hearing those.”

There has only been one public comment made so far, regarding initial appearances.

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