Investigative Reporting: Judicial Affairs and Law Enforcement

By Carolyn VanBrocklin

When journalists begin investigating the courts they need to understand the process of how judges and prosecutors are chosen. According to the book “judges can still be politicians in robes. Similarly, prosecutors can be politicians who serve as officers of the court” (181). tips5

There are two types of cases: civil cases and criminal cases. The difference is that “in civil cases, one party seeks compensation or penalties for damages allegedly inflicted by another party” (182). Sometimes defendants can be found not guilty in criminal cases but lose civil trials with the same evidence.

When tracking civil cases, journalists must always remember that they can be important in tracking product safety, malpractice, scams, corporate misdeeds and other actions. It is relatively easy to learn about such cases since documents are added and updated through the duration of the case. There is a wealth of information that can be reviewed from a variety of sources in the courtroom.

Tracking criminal cases is a long and complicated procedure. There are several steps that are taken. People and paper trails begin with the arrest. Jails keep log-books that can assist investigative journalists. Sometimes these papers can be complicated if the various people involved do not speak English.

After the arrest, the prisoner goes from jail to the courthouse. There is an initial appearance in court and pretrial hearings. After this the judges and jury are chosen.

When journalists go to investigate punishments they can often get access to prisons as long as they comply with the warden’s policies. If the journalist is interested in investigating prison conditions, they can examine complaint files, interview previous prisoners and check lawsuits. In addition journalists can inquire about deaths in the prison and if anyone is being rehabilitated.

After or despite jail time, prisoners have the option of probation or parole. Probation means relative freedom for the person, with meetings with probation officers who act as social workers, employment counselors and teachers all in one. Release on parole comes after a portion of the jail sentence has been complete.

There are some special types of courts that handle specific issues. Juvenile cases are extremely hard for journalists to follow as there is a degree of secrecy involved. However, there can be an issue with this amount of secrecy, particularly when records are cleared. Juveniles can become repeat offenders, especially when they have committed several crimes as juveniles.

Family court is designed for special family issues, particularly with child and spousal neglect or abuse. There is also traffic court, which is related to municipal court, divorce court, probate court, small claims court, U.S. tax court, U.S. bankruptcy court and U.S. military courts.

Going along with investigating the court system is investigating law enforcement. It is relatively easy to investigate the local police force, particularly in smaller towns. It’s relatively easy to just report on what is happening, but it is equally as important to dig underneath in case there is something going on there. Journalists can observe officers directly to determine personality and efficiency to make sure a single officer or department is doing the right thing.

Even law enforcement is susceptible to corruption, so journalists must be aware of this. They should look at awards given and day to day functions within the department to get an idea of any favoritism that might be involved.

Law enforcement covers so many aspects of people’s lives that it has many crimes to contend with from homicide to traffic violations. Journalists need to find the records that are kept and ask many questions to get the information that they seek.

This article, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winner by Dana Priest of the Washington Post discussed prisons in the context of the government’s counterterrorism campaign. The article focused on the CIA and its operations with holding Al Qaeda prisoners in secret locations to interrogate them.  Priest uncovered mistakes made by the CIA with the imprisonment of certain individuals, and talked about how the CIA tries to avoid coming under scrutiny with regards to treatment of detainees.  This is something that definitely takes into consideration everything that was written in this chapter, particularly taking care to determine if there is anything happening that shouldn’t be.  


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