Order in the Court 2.0: Making the Justice System More Public

    by John Davidow
    August 13, 2010

    The idea behind Order in the Court 2.0, one of this year’s winners of a Knight News Challenge grant, is to restore and reinvigorate the public’s access and understanding of our nation’s courts.

    Up to now journalism has been the primary bridge connecting the public to the courts. But the media’s ability to cover the courts is diminished due to shrinking resources.

    At the same time, many in the public are equipped with new media tools like smartphones, Wi-Fi and access to multiple social networks.


    Working with the judiciary and the public, Order in the Court 2.0 will establish best practices for effective and efficient ways to cover the courts using digital technology.

    Live Streaming, Place for Bloggers, Wiki

    We are the first nationally funded initiative to change how courts deal with electronic journalism since video and audio recording standards were established in the 1970’s. While the legislative and the executive branch have embraced new technologies developed in the last decade, the judicial branch has been the slowest to adapt to these innovations.

    Order in the Court 2.0 will create a pilot program in Quincy District Court, located just outside Boston, to serve as a laboratory to test these new media initiatives. Quincy District Court is one of the busiest courthouses in the Massachusetts with nearly 9,000 new criminal complaints filed each year.


    This pilot program will equip the courthouse with live video-streaming capabilities and create designated areas for live bloggers. Additionally, we will post online the court’s daily docket to better inform and engage the public of what civil and criminal cases are being heard in the area. We also plan to build a knowledge wiki that will educate the public of common legal terms and proceedings, all in an effort to add transparency to this fundamental aspect of our democratic society.

    By the end of this project, the more skeptical members of the legal community — including judges, court administrators and lawyers — should accept, if not embrace, the advantages of increased digital access to the nation’s court system. To quote Judge Mark Coven, First Justice of the Quincy District court in Massachusetts, “We have long believed that if the public had greater information about what transpires in the court that there would be increased public confidence in the work of our judicial system.”

    Additionally, we hoped that the effective demonstration of the success of Order in the Court 2.0 will be a model that can be emulated through the nation’s courts at all jurisdictional levels.

    Leadership and Partners

    I will be leading a small team of digital journalists working out of Quincy District Court. My day job is executive director of wbur.org, the website of Boston NPR’s website. Over the past year I’ve overseen our station’s efforts to become a major news destination site. I’m responsible for the editorial content of our website, which includes content from our local newsroom, Radio Boston, and our nationally syndicated programs, On Point, Here and Now, and Only a Game. Prior to going over to the digital side, I was WBUR’s news director for the last six years. I’ve also got two decades worth of local television news experience working at Boston’s ABC and CBS affiliates.

    The idea behind Order in the Court 2.0 came out of work being done by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee, of which I am a member. This committee is made up of members of the state and federal judiciary and media representatives from print, radio, television and online. This committee is trying to adapt the current cameras in the court rules to incorporate the new realities of digital access. Order in the Court 2.0 will provide real world opportunities to test out some of these proposed rule changes.

    We also plan to work cooperatively with the National Conference of Court Public Information Officers. This past year the new media committee of the CCPIO has been studying the issue raised by increased digital access. It will soon release its findings. After studying the state of new media and gauging the perceptions of judges and court administrators, the CCPIO will issue a framework for the courts on how to make decisions appropriate for the use of new media. Order in the Court 2.0 adds the input of mainstream media, citizen journalists and the public at large to this equation and then tests these assumptions in real time in one of the busiest courts in the state


    One of the greatest challenges Order in the Court 2.0 will face is the fear and apprehension of the judges and court staff, who are concerned that greater access and transparency of the legal process could have a detrimental effect on the administration of justice. To address this concern, Order in the Court 2.0 will include judges and other court personnel in its development and implementation.

    Order in the Court 2.0 will have to strike the appropriate balance between the public’s right to know and the public’s right to due process. These two rights play themselves out everyday in court and the introduction of smaller, and more accessible digital communication devices only complicate issues that the courts need to address going into the future.

    Order in the Court Needs You

    Even though we haven’t officially started at Quincy District Court, this project is getting lots of attention thanks to coverage in the Boston Globe, Neiman Journalism Lab, Current
    and even across the pond at journalism.co,uk.

    But, most importantly, we’d love to know what you think of our idea. What does it need to accomplish to be a success in your mind? Let us know what you think by adding a comment below. We’d love to have you along for the ride as we attempt to bring about Order in the Court 2.0.

    Tagged: cameras in the courtroom civic journalism court reporting courts legal system project intros
    • Transparency in the legal process may be difficult to achieve, particularly when it comes to criminal law. You may want to get in contact with producers of Justice Talking, a now-defunct public radio program on constitutional issues. JT created some kiosks to provide some legal education to people in public places, including, I believe, jury pool rooms.

    • My opinion: It’s a great project, but as a news historian I would absolutely not say this is “the first nationally funded initiative to change how courts deal with electronic journalism since video and audio recording standards were established in the 1970’s.” I think it would help open collaboration with all of the others who have been doing this all along, the university-based courts project out in Nevada, the reporter’s committee and many others, not to make that kind of claim. Since you haven’t actually changed anything yet, it is simply incorrect to say what you are saying. Enthusiasm is good but this kind of statement doesn’t help bring support from the “open court” community, which does exist. That support is needed to spread any lessons learned in this experiment.

    • I hope this project takes into account what already has been learned from those states where there long have been cameras in the courtrooms, such as Nebraska. For instance, PBS station NET has a permanent camera in the Nebraska Supreme Court. Other districts allow pool video and photo coverage. Cameras in the courts are not new everywhere. Consequently, what can this project learn from those who have been doing it for years. And Nebraska is only one example.

    • John Davidow

      Eric Newton raises an excellent point. I was overly exuberant on the historic context of this project. We have actively been reaching out to many groups in this field and have already established constructive working relationships with a number of them. I’m confident that will continue, but I appreciate Eric’s insight pointing out the work going around the country on this important issue.

      I’d like to thank Gary Kebbel regarding his comment regarding cameras in the courtroom in Nebraska and in other states. Perhaps my post didn’t make it clear enough, but Massachusetts allows cameras in the courtroom. In fact the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court also livestreams its proceedings. This project will build on the state’s current experience of cameras in the courtroom by adapting media guidelines to take into consideration the greater public accessibility to personal video, audio and digital technology. Order in the Court 2.0 will be working with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary- Media Committee to help rewrite the original cameras in the courtroom statute to incorporate greater public access and guidelines about how to use smartphones and laptops in court without interfering with the proceedings. It is the hope of this project that working in real time in a busy local courthouse we can come up with guidelines and best practices that could apply in courtrooms around the country to increase the transparency of the judicial branch.

    • MIke

      “Court 2.0 will face is the fear and apprehension of the judges and court staff, who are concerned that greater access and transparency of the legal process could have a detrimental effect on the administration of justice”

      It fills ME with fear that they are afraid of being held accountable for their actions. For a righteous arm of justice would have no such fear.

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