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WBUR Wins Courts Reporting Grant, and a Murrow Award

Grant to devise Internet coverage, award for Overall Excellence

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WBUR’s John Davidow will oversee efforts to devise new-media court coverage. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

New media is puzzling over an old mechanism: the wheels of justice. Should bloggers be allowed to cover courtrooms, or will fingers punching keyboards distract jurors or others from their all-important duties? Could live video streaming of a trial put justice at risk by, say, revealing jurors’ identities to a defendant’s confederates? Might posting dockets and judges’ assignments on the Web be a sufficient public window on the courts?

That line of inquiry added up to a $260,000 question for John Davidow, executive editor for new media at WBUR, whose team was awarded that amount by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for the purpose of exploring these issues in Quincy District Court for one year.

The grant from the Knight Foundation, whose aim is to advance journalism excellence in the digital age, was announced by WBUR June 18, one of two bits of good news to arrive at BU’s National Public Radio station. Two days earlier, WBUR won the 2010 Edward R. Murrow Award for Overall Excellence in large-market radio.

The Knight grant will bankroll the first major judiciary coverage discussion since the cameras-in-courts debates of the 1970s and ’80s, says Davidow, who will oversee the project. The money will pay for a program named Order in the Court 2.0, which partners WBUR with the Quincy District Court. Assuming the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) approves the program, WBUR will brainstorm this summer with district court Associate Justice Mark Coven (LAW’75) and the national Conference of Court Public Information Officers about how to digitize court coverage, says Davidow. The SJC’s Judiciary-Media Committee has given the project “an enthusiastic endorsement,” court spokeswoman Joan Kenney says.

The idea for the program sprang from Davidow’s work on that committee of judges and media folks. “One problem is the judges really don’t know who’s a journalist, who’s not a journalist,” he says, and meanwhile, “the mass media have fewer and fewer resources to cover the courts, at a time when the public has more and more resources to do it,” with the spread of devices such as smart phones. “That bridge to the courts, which was the media, has broken down a bit. The Founders intended the courts’ business to be seen by all.”

TV, says Davidow, proved a haphazard template for real-time court coverage. “Court TV sometimes is live. But it picks and chooses. The goal of this program is to create greater access to the courts on a consistent basis.”

Order in the Court 2.0 may insert community journalists in the courtroom, perhaps with training from College of Communication instructors, according to Davidow. WBUR.com would link to any coverage, and other media outlets might also link to it. At the end of the one-year grant, the program will assess its status and whether to seek more money from Knight or other sources.

The project was one of a dozen chosen to receive a total of $2.74 million in grants under the foundation’s Knight News Challenge. “The National Center for State Courts has endorsed the project,” says Jose Zamora, an associate with Knight’s journalism program. “We don’t know about any similar projects. Some courtrooms have adopted new technology, but to our knowledge, none of them are allowing live digital reporting.”

The 2010 Edward R. Murrow Award for Overall Excellence in large-market radio was awarded to WBUR by the Radio and Television Digital News Association (formerly the Radio Television News Directors Association). WBUR was among 59 winners in the national category (there’s also a regional category).

“The man known as the liberal lion of the U.S. Senate, Senator Edward Kennedy, has died at age 77.” WBUR morning anchor Bob Oakes’ announcement last August 26 touched off wall-to-wall coverage and introduces WBUR’s winning submission. The station’s reporting on Kennedy’s death guided radio listeners through reminiscences about the senator, perspectives on his legacy, and the sounds of his funeral Mass, melding reporting of the events and discussions on interview programs such as On Point and Here and Now.

Contributing to the Overall Excellence award was the station’s coverage of school dropout rates.

Rich Barlow may be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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