Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » What is the proper news coverage of civil courts?

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In criminal cases, we know those accused are presumed innocent.

Even so, information usually is available from law enforcement and others about why the person is being accused of the crime. The defendants generally are advised by their lawyer to not comment, so little of the other side of the case is known until a trial, if the case goes that far.

Likewise, cases filed in civil court can present challenges in terms of balanced newspaper reporting. During the past couple of years, the Advocate has increased its coverage of civil court to better fulfill our role as watchdog of the three branches of government. The courts wield a great deal of power, so we aim to inform the public about what they're doing and why.

Some of these civil cases are of high public interest and prompt considerable reader reaction. The feedback we get generally falls into two opposing camps:

-- Anyone being sued must have done something wrong.

-- Anyone suing must be looking for an easy meal ticket.

Of course, the truth usually lies somewhere between these two extremes. We try to present both sides by waiting to report on a case until up to 30 days after it has been filed so that the defendant's legal response can be part of the initial coverage.

That response may be detailed or brief, but it's generally the best we can get. We also contact the defendants and their lawyers for comment, but they often say little or nothing.

We followed this procedure in reporting on a recent lawsuit filed against a Victoria doctor. That story prompted some criticism, including a letter to the editor from another doctor.

We will be reviewing our handling of this story in particular and civil cases in general during our upcoming ethics board meeting. As we routinely do during our monthly ethics board meetings, we want to be sure we're being as fair as possible with our coverage.

The two keys issues we'll consider:

-- How we decide what civil cases merit news coverage.

-- How we decide placement of these stories in the paper.

On the first point, we generally look for civil cases that fall into these broad categories:

-- Lawsuits involving public institutions or elected officials or candidates for office or prominent public officials such as a city manager or police chief.

-- Product complaints/defects.

-- Business disputes involving substantial dollar amounts.

-- Wrongful deaths.

-- Discrimination claims.

-- Unusual circumstances or legal issues.

-- Medical malpractice.

We focus on these issues because of their public importance and interest. In terms of medical malpractice, only about five such cases are filed annually in Victoria County. If dozens of such cases were filed annually, that would change the news value equation.

When determining where to place a story, we can't fully judge the merits of any lawsuit. Rather, we consider the importance and interest in the issues presented by the case.

The final ingredient of the fairness formula is follow-up coverage. We try to report on the outcome of these cases and give equal treatment then. The challenge here is that these cases move slowly through the court system. Sometimes, both sides reach a private settlement and choose not to disclose the outcome to the public.

We'll review all of this during our upcoming ethics board meeting and invite your thoughts on civil court coverage. Our court system is not perfect, which is why news coverage is necessary but also can be flawed.