Australian research indicates that courts are a major source of information for most news organisations.
Courts are a valuable source of information for the media about incidents and cases where suicide and mental ill-health may be raised.
In fact, having mental ill-health raised in court may make a particular case more ‘newsworthy’. Similarly, suicide deaths that result in a coronial inquiry may be of more interest to media, due to speculation about the cause of death or possible breaches in duty of care.
Media coverage of suicide and courts proceedings
Courts and the media are very different, having different cultural expectations, deadlines, commercial imperatives, historical development, language and protocols.
Why the media interest in courts?
News stories may be broadly categorised as routine, staged and spontaneous events. Court reporting is generally routine news because it occurs on a predictable basis with regular timing, sources and venue.
Media interest in court reporting, may exist for any of the following reasons:
- Unlike other rounds where the reporter has to seek out opposing points of view, courts provide these in their adversarial context.
- Generally speaking, reporters will get their stories from within the courtroom.
- The relatively safe reporting environment afforded by the privilege of courts means that reporters can report and write stories relatively simply, as long as they are fair and balanced in their reporting and avoid legislative prohibitions.
- Often crime and court stories involve themes of fear, horror or shock, and much of the information can be deeply personal and intimate, therefore ‘newsworthy’.
- High-profile and interesting stories can often be planned ahead of time by thoroughly examining the court lists and having some knowledge of police charges.
What makes news?
Much of what goes on in court is not newsworthy, but because the news space varies, what makes the news one day may not make it in the next.
Two key elements of court cases that make them particularly newsworthy are conflict and deviant behaviours. Court cases will often incorporate these news values or themes if they are to become news stories. Other news values or themes include:
- prominence, high impact, controversy, protest, key decisions, violence, scandal, moral disorder, proximity, human interest and timeliness
- immediacy, dramatisation, personalisation, simplification, titillation, non-conventionalism and novelty.
Any of these news values, themes or elements may be obviously located in a story, even before the court case begins. However, may emerge as the court case develops and the journalist witnesses a development or shift in the case.
A news angle may also become apparent half way through a court case, when a comment, witness, finding or piece of evidence is introduced.
Who are key sources of information?
Reporters rely on sources as well as first-hand observation in court reporting. The most common sources are:
- lawyers – prosecutors and defence counsel
- the Police Media Unit, police stories
- court staff – sheriffs, bailiffs, clerk of the court, judge’s associates
- court lists from daily newspapers or the internet
- informants or tip-offs
- other journalists in court and other media.
How is the news story developed?
Changes in technology have led to greater multiple-platform reporting, using online as well as traditional media.
This means that one story can have several versions for a range of media which will be built up from earlier stories. It also means that the speed with which stories can be developed and released is greatly increased.
The development of a news story will usually follow a set path where, once written and filed by the journalist, it is sub edited for the print version of the paper (and/or the online version).
At this point, the journalist usually has no control over the editing of their story. This can prove problematic in covering court stories because the story in its entirety can often provide context and important background which may, due to space, have to be reduced or removed.
Media coverage of mental ill-health and courts proceedings
Research has indicated that the media has an important role to play in informing and influencing community attitudes to mental ill-health and people living with a mental illness.
Impact of reporting
Australian research has shown that coverage of mental ill-health that results from information collected at courts or from the police is the most problematic type of news coverage*.
Many news stories from the courts about mental ill-health focus on violence. These stories relate to specific and relatively rare circumstances, but audiences are likely to draw generalised inferences about people diagnosed with a mental illness as a result.
Media may hold misconceptions about mental ill-health that may influence the frame they use for a particular story. Therefore, it is important, that people involved in the judiciary understand the potential impact of reporting mental ill-health in certain ways and are aware of best practice reporting through the Mindframe guidelines.
Facts and Statistics
Visit Mindframe's data and statistics page for the latest ABS Causes of Death data.
More information about media reporting of mental ill-health is available here.