One of the most important aspects of a free press is open access to the judicial system. It’s why the media is called the fourth estate — we keep watch over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
Critical to fulfill the media’s watchdog charge on the court system is being allowed open access to the courts at all levels. Part of that access must be allowing journalists to use tools necessary to ensure accurate and fair coverage in the public’s interest.
Currently, Alaska has rules that govern how, where and if the media are allowed to cover all manner of proceedings. These rules, as they currently stand, are archaic and in desperate need of updating, the Clarion’s editorial board concluded after a recent review.
Media coverage of courts is regulated by the Alaska Court System’s Rules of Administration — specifically Rule No. 50 and Administrative Bulletin No. 45. Both of these rules do not reflect the current state of the Alaska media given recent advancements in technology, publishing access and ambition.
Some portions of the rules exist for a reason as they serve to protect the identities of victims and of jurors. Others, however, are burdensome, clumsy and haven’t been updated in decades.
The media — defined only as the “electronic media, still photographers and sketch artists” — must apply for coverage with the court 24 hours prior to a proceeding unless cause is shown for a later application.
This application is usually approved by a judge. But it is, if not a barrier to coverage in some cases, certainly a hoop to jump through. In this day and age, most journalists simply do not have 24 hours to prepare to apply for coverage.
Furthermore, journalists are members of the public and court proceedings are open to the public. Additionally, the public is increasingly gaining access to tools and resources once reserved to journalists.
Any member of the public attending a court proceeding has in their cell phone a still camera, video camera and voice recorder. However, use of a camera or video recorder currently require approval of a judge. These rules do not take into account modern technology and place unusual restrictions on journalists, especially considering that anyone in the court may be taking photos, recording audio or video of a proceeding unbeknownst to the court.
The bottom line is that anyone who sits in the audience could be a media member considering the open publishing access afforded by the internet. Are these rules to be applied to all who enter the court? We should hope not.
Alaska Court System officials need to take a closer look at these rules and update them to allow for more modest, modern regulation of court coverage.
The media has changed and so must the court. But the change must be in a manner that allows journalists to use modern tools, which ultimately benefits accuracy, accountability and open access — all of which our court should stand for unwaveringly.
Coverage decision requires explanation
The Clarion has received numerous questions about its perceived lack of coverage of an alleged incident involving the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the United Fisherman of Alaska.
UFA officials have charged that KRSA eavesdropped on a teleconference of the group’s board of directors.
Clarion reporting staff has pursued these claims. While rumors are swirling, the factual information available to the Clarion is, in our judgement, not yet sufficient to run a story, especially considering the seriousness of the allegations. We simply have too many unanswered questions.
The Clarion strives to provide fair and accurate coverage, and we will continue to investigate this issue. But we will not publish a story until more factual details become available, a substantial legal challenge is filed or a citation is issued. We are not in the business of printing accusations that can’t be substantiated.