Though rarely seen in newspaper stories and TV news reports, there’s something special helping journalists cover law and justice issues in Washington.
Since 1963, a group of judges, lawyers, law enforcement officers and media representatives have met regularly to build rapport and address concerns over court openness, news coverage, fair trials and reporters’ access and ability to do their jobs.
Called the Bench-Bar-Press Committee, it’s a model other states have tried and failed to replicate, according to Rowland Thompson, executive director of the trade group Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington.
“We have one of the most open court systems in the nation. The Bench-Bar-Press (committee) is the direct progenitor of that,” Thompson said at a May 12 training event held by the committee.
It’s chaired by the state Supreme Court’s chief justice or a designee. Current Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez designated Justice Debra Stephens.
In addition to training judges, court officials and the press, the committee operates a program called the “Fire Brigade.” It’s a group of judges on call to resolve conflicts and answer questions. Brigade members will talk to lawyers, judges and reporters involved or speak on their behalf to mediate the situation.
At the training event, I was reminded of how lucky Washington is to have such a forum for the press and judges, who despite transparency rules still have varying opinions on how open the court system should be to reporters and photographers.
At the same time, it was apparent that the local news industry’s steep decline is complicating relationships that the committee worked to improve over the last 60 years.
Gonzalez said it’s important for the committee to continue and accommodate the tension between the constitutional values of a free press and fair trial.
“Our relationship together is central to this state’s function, to its history, and I know to its future,” he said in remarks directed at the press. “We look to you to help us communicate, cover, educate and promote democracy in the state of Washington.”
The committee was critical to opening courtrooms to photographers and broadcasters starting in 1976. That led to Washington becoming the second state to allow cameras in courtrooms.
Another example of its effectiveness came during the sentencing of Green River Killer Gary Ridgway. Anticipating a circus, the committee engaged early, met with the judge and arranged rules of engagement and space for media.
Thompson contrasted that with a current transparency debacle in Idaho, in the case of Bryan Kohberger, who is accused murdering four university students. A coalition of media outlets sued over an extreme gag order imposed by a district court.
“We are much farther along than Idaho — we are much farther along than the Supreme Court,” Melissa Luck, news director at Spokane-based KXLY-TV, said during the training.
Court and media representatives met at community colleges across the state for training video-conferenced across the venues.
A silent elephant in the rooms was the news industry’s decline.
Among concerns raised by court officials was frequent turnover in newsrooms.
There are far fewer reporters covering courts and familiar with their workings. Instead, courts are seeing a changing cast of reporters who don’t have the same relationships.
It’s probably rare for the average courtroom to see any reporter nowadays, since newspaper newsrooms that provide most local coverage shrank by 70% over the last two decades.
Remaining reporters are stretched to cover many topics and have less time to prowl courthouses and sit through trials.
That was evident in how some judges voiced concerns about talking to reporters, fearing they’re just after a “gotcha” quote.
Newsroom managers said their reporters are professional, have standards and would rather have ongoing access and good relationships.
I think the only way some judges will get comfortable with reporters is if they regularly experience them doing their job, talk to them and see how they differ from caricatures on fictional TV shows and movies.
“I think that’s absolutely right,” said King County Superior Court Judge Judith Ramseyer, the fire brigade’s current chief.
“As with anybody’s comfort zone, the more you’re exposed to something the more comfortable you’re going to become with it,” she said. “I try to convey the message that dealing with the media doesn’t have to be terrifying, build those relationships and feel like you’ve got some trust.”
There are exceptions, like talk-show hosts looking to stir things up, but in general journalists want to be accurate and convey facts, Ramseyer said.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of trying to make sure those facts are accurate, from our standpoint,” she said.
Ramseyer suggested reporters reach out to meet judges and vice versa, and that the committee do more frequent training.
Judges’ comfort with the press probably mirrors the experience of Americans in general. Trust in media is declining for many reasons but partly because there’s less contact with a shrinking press.
This goes both ways. Trust in the judicial system is also declining. As with news, people trust locals more — state courts are more trusted than federal ones.
Again, that’s probably another result of the local journalism crisis, which reduces knowledge of institutions like courts.
The vacuum is filled by national news more focused on polarizing Beltway politics. Washingtonians probably know more about Supreme Court justices than local judges they elect and are more likely to face.
It’s also harder for courts when they want to talk to journalists. One administrator said that with all the newsroom turnover, they aren’t sure who to call or where to send news releases.
Then there’s the emergence of bloggers and other individuals seeking court information they want to publish online. They also deserve access but may be less attuned to journalistic standards, court protocols and building long-term relationships.
That all tells me the Bench-Bar-Press Committee is more important than ever, and will have much to do over the next 60 years.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.