It's hard to turn on TV news without running into a story about the current trial of the century.
Last month it was the Jody Arias murder trial in Arizona. Now it's either George Zimmerman's trial in a Florida courtroom for the death of Trayvon Martin, or the case of accused Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. Next up in February will be the trial of accused Colorado mass murderer James Holmes.
Toni Locy is an associate professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University. She spent 25 years covering courts for various news outlets before joining the W&L faculty in 2008, and she published a textbook, "Covering America's Courts: A Clash of Rights," earlier this year.
Although Locy sees a proliferation of these high-profile cases, she is quick to note that the concept is not new. The list of celebrity trials goes way back, and Locy even teaches a course titled Covering Great Trials in History.
"There's nothing new about cases with a circus atmosphere," said Locy. "What is new is the technology — instantaneous communication and 24-7 cable coverage." That, she says, has catapulted trials that wouldn't have gotten nearly as much attention 20 years ago into the national limelight, not just local or regional.
The changing nature of coverage notwithstanding, Locy is convinced that covering courts "is the most important beat a news organization has."
"I always believed that when I covered trials, and I think it even more so now that I've had a little distance," said Locy. "News organizations owe it to the public. It's their duty to make sure that they assign good, ethical reporters to the courts. You're talking about an entire branch of government. Of the three branches, the judiciary is the one that receives the least coverage and, in my judgment, the least quality coverage."
Locy believes it is incumbent upon reporters who cover the courts to be aggressive, ethical and skeptical.
"The judiciary is where the rubber meets the road," she said. "People can lose their freedom; they can lose their lives if it's a capital case. You can't get higher stakes than that.
"In my opinion, Covering the courts and covering them well — aggressively, ethically, with skepticism — that is a calling. It is a public service to do it well."