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September 13, 2007

ULM journalism students receive valuable insights from local legal and media professionals at workshop

What does the term “off-the-record” mean? Why is trust such a valuable asset in reporting?

These were just a couple of questions that were answered in a workshop held Wednesday, Sept. 5 by the Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Honorable Wilson Rambo and Tae Kim, assistant professor of communication, at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

Sitting in courtroom chairs in the Ouachita Parish Courthouse, seven aspiring journalists from Kim’s advanced reporting class learned the nuts and bolts of courtroom reporting.

“Anything said in a courtroom is open to the public,” said Elizabeth Fitch, The News-Star reporter who covers the Ouachita Parish court system.

However, reporters have certain limits on what they can report, Fitch said. For example, reporters do not report the names of rape victims or juvenile defendants.

In addition, she said reporters should never convey anything that a source says is off-the-record.

“The most important thing you have as a journalist is your word,” Fitch said.

“People are definitely burned by media, especially in law enforcement,” said Jennifer Townley, KNOE-TV reporter who has covered court many years. She stressed that even if a different reporter broke the trust, she would need to work harder to earn it back from the source.

KTVE-TV reporter Joseph Pleasant added, “To me, off-the-record sources do not exist. I don’t even mention it to my boss.” But, he said off-the-record comments help him ask better questions at later stages.

Judge Rambo served as a moderator and often initiated heated dialogue between reporters, lawyers, and students.

“Which interest do you pursue: the public’s right to know or the defendant’s right to fair trial?” Judge Rambo asked.

Charles Kincaid, a local trial attorney, said his duty is to the client he represents. He tries to keep everything he says to the media as general as possible.

Assistant District Attorney Stephen Sylvester said, “As a lawyer, we do not try to control the media. We strongly believe in the First Amendment even though we don’t always agree with certain issues.”

The event was one of series in the active-learning curriculum designed by Kim.

Other class activities include: conducting background investigation of election candidates using public records, covering a mock emergency press conference with Wayne Brumfield, vice president for Student Affairs at ULM, analyzing ULM parking citation data, receiving police orientation by Monroe Police Department Training Officer Mark Johnson, and covering Monroe City Council meetings with Robbie Evans, The News-Star reporter.

“Students will find these hands-on experiences invaluable, especially at their first day on the job,” Kim said.

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