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Expanded Media Coverage provides transparency in Iowa courtrooms

In the past week, the Daily News and the public interest were represented by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in a Jasper County courtroom. At stake was the public’s right to full and open access to court proceedings.

Not every citizen can take the time to step away from his or her everyday responsibilities to sit in the courtroom during a high-profile trial. And even if that was possible, the Grand Courtroom at the Jasper County Courthouse couldn’t possibly hold them all.

So they must rely upon the local media and the press to keep them informed as to what is happening. That is a role the Daily News takes very seriously, and it is a role we want to fulfill to the best of our abilities.

Unlike the regular interviews our reporters conduct on a daily basis, the  proceedings in the courtroom can’t be stopped to ensure accuracy of quotes. And, depending upon the inflection and pace of speech of each individual witness, it may be difficult to keep verbatim handwritten notes of the testimony.

For the Eilander trial in May, the staff member who reported on the events of the trial had 22 pages of handwritten notes from two days of testimony and two or three hours of motion hearings. Exact quotes were few and far between within those pages.

For that reason, it is beneficial to everyone involved when our reporters are able to audio record the proceedings. This is a practice Daily News reporters typically engage in during regular interviews, as well.

But, currently, Iowa court rules forbid the use of audio recording devices without the approval of Expanded Media Coverage. And that is the primary reason why we made such a request to the court.

With the approval of EMC, the Daily News now has a responsibility to provide comprehensive coverage of the trial for our readers, as well as for other media outlets that have expressed an interest in the case. You will find that expanded, comprehensive coverage has already begun in the Shine trial now underway, both in our print pages, and on our website.

EMC has been a part of regular courtroom activity in Iowa for nearly 35 years, and has been successfully executed more than 2,000 times. This won’t be the last case in which we request expanded coverage in Jasper County, either.

We have already requested EMC for the upcoming Joseph Olea and Chelsea Miller trials. And, once a trial date is tentatively set in the Daniel Edwards case, we will make another EMC request.

These requests are based largely on the type of crimes committed and their impact upon the community as a whole. We do not make such requests lightly, either.

Not every EMC request in the Jasper County District court has been initiated by the Daily News, either. The upcoming Jena Wright and James Brock trials have already been approved for EMC at the request of Des Moines-based television stations.

And while we did not request EMC for those cases, we do support them. We also support efforts by the Iowa Judicial Branch and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council to provide even more access and transparency in Iowa courtrooms.

Iowa’s court rules were written for a time when newspapers used stenographers and sketch artists to cover court proceedings. Technology has changed a great deal over the subsequent years, and it’s time for the rules governing media coverage of the courts to follow suit.

• • •

The preceding constitutes the opinion of the Daily News Editorial Board. Readers may respond with letters to the editor sent to P.O. Box 967, Newton, IA 50208, or at newsroom@newtondailynews.com via email.

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