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April 5, 2007

Obbie’s got the LawBeat

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,lawyer news or ethics — David Giacalone @ 10:55 am

journalistF  Mark Obbie is the director of the Carnegie Legal Reporting Program at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, and is the former executive editor of The American Lawyer magazine.  He knows how difficult it can be for reporters to cover court-related stories “without drowning in technical jargon or buying one side’s spin on the facts.”  He wants his journalism students to “turn the complexities of law — and whether the justice system actually works — into compelling stories that attract and serve readers and viewers.”  

We can get a peek into that learning process at his weblog LawBeat, which he began last October.  As Obbie puts it: 

LawBeat watches the journalists who watch the law. It is meant to start a conversation — here and in the classroom — about the quality of journalism focusing on the justice system, lawyers and the law. All posts are by Mark Obbie unless otherwise noted

Mark’s opening post, “Welcome Mat“, explains further his approach in LawBeat.  He says: “LawBeat is not a survey of the day’s legal news. It’s not for or about lawyers and the courts (though we won’t kick you out if you visit). It’s not about media law.”  Instead LawBeat “will be mostly anecdotes that teach lessons.” Those lessons are “critically imporant”:

journalist  “Ask a lawyer or judge about the quality of legal reporting, and you’re likely to hear all about superficial, hyped or ignorant coverage. Those kinds of mistakes undermine the rule of law and hurt our democracy. We’ll be on the lookout for examples, and hope that you’ll supply us with tips. We’ll also be skeptical of the bench’s and bar’s criticisms, since some are rooted in a desire for public relations rather than journalism — and ignore the difficulties of turning legal and factual complexities into stories with mass appeal.”

Although not aimed at lawyers, or the general public, I think we can learn at LawBeat how to be better readers of law-related reporting in the media.  Those of us who are trained in the law and write about the law, courts, lawyers, etc., can also learn a few lessons on how to do that job better — especially, if we want to inform and not be mere advocates.  As a bonus, LawBeat is often enjoyable reading that helps us deconstruct some of the most important law-related coverage in the media.  This morning, for example, Mark responds to a Slate piece by Jack Shafer that points the finger at some journalists who have been trying too hard to make “Anna Nicole Smith obsessives feel guilty for their obsession.”  More substantively, this week, he has posted:

  1. Court Kreminolgy (April 03, 2007), which looks at Linda Greenhouse’s two NYT stories on Supreme Court decisions that share a common theme: “how Justice John Paul Stevens may be voting and reasoning in a way calculated to tip cases his way with the help of Anthony Kennedy’s swing vote.” And, 
  2. Scapegoat or anecdote? (april 3, 2007), which asks whether a Raleigh newspaper mistreated a lawyer “when it questioned how much he was paid as a court-appointed guardian for people who could not handle their own financial affairs?” [Ed. Note: A good term paper for one of Mark’s students could look at the Washington Post series that broke open this topic three years ago (discussed here at f/k/a), and compare it to copycat pieces across the nation, such as the recent Seatle Times series (via Trial Ad Notes)].

10DeadliestObbie Special attention should be given to Mark’s enlightening “10 Deadliest Sins of Legal Reporting,” dated March 29, 2007.  Here’s the list (via LegalBLogWatch).  At the posting you’ll find Mark’s commentary about each Legal Reporting Sin.  There are a lot of excellent a tips there for readers and writers of law-related stories, and for lawyers who want to do a better job of helping a reporter write a balanced and informative piece:

10. Assume you know anything

9. Have fun with numbers 

8. Indulge your criminal state of mind

7. Live off handouts

6. Talk down to readers and viewers 

5. Throw gang signs [“cliquish copy” for experts only]  10DeadliestObbie

4. Followup failure

3. Genuflect to the black robes

2. Play scorekeeper

1. Join the true believers


evening warmth–
latchkey kids play rummy
in the doorway


An obituary
circled in the paper –
pale winter moon


A grey dawn–
last night’s poker cards
facedown on the table


……………………………………… by Rebecca Lilly
“evening warmth” – The Heron’s Nest, Vol. VIII (2006)
“An obituary”& “A grey dawn” – Shadwell Hills (2002)

p.s. Now available: The Heron’s NestVol. VIII Print Edition THNVol8


1 Comment

  1. Thanks very much for the kind words and attention. I’m glad the blog serves a broader community than just my students. One postscript, with all due respect to the Washington Post and its copycats: The newspaper I once edited, Texas Lawyer, won an Investigative Reporters and Editors national award under my watch in 1989 for exposing such abuses in Houston courts.

    Comment by Mark Obbie — April 5, 2007 @ 11:11 am

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