Covering a Court Case: Journalism and Law Students

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

An important trial is under way in Montana, where W.R. Grace is the defendant in a case about pollution, conspiracy and cover-up. Journalism and law students from the University of Montana are doing superlative coverage of the case in a blog-based project.

This is a great model for journalism schools and communities where they exist. It should be a template for others to use and improve on in the future.

The Grace Case Project is a collaborative undertaking dedicated to providing accurate, timely coverage of the criminal prosecution of U.S. v W.R. Grace and five of its executives and managers. The case is being tried in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont. It focuses on charges that the company and the employees named engaged in a conspiracy and cover up that risked the lives of people in Libby, Mont., by allowing them to be exposed to a type of asbestos stirred up by the company’s vermiculite mining and ore processing near town.

The students are tackling different aspects of the coverage, with one student from each school in the courtroom most of the time court is in session.

inkwell image

Journalism students, most of whom are undergraduate juniors and seniors, are working to tell the story that the jury hears. They are also writing background and explainer stories that aim to provide context and clarity to the daily court action. The journalism students work under the conditions of their trade, attributing their information to named sources or direct observation and writing according to AP style. Their blog posts are designated by the use of the inkwell icon, and have a blue background.

scales Law students, who are in their second and third years at the law school, are charged with explaining the legal nuances and strategies of the trial. Their posts explain why the jurors are hearing the story as it is being told, and the strategy behind the legal challenges and rulings that shape that story. They provide legal background and context in an effort to explain the strategy of the legal teams. Law students labor under the conventions of their field, not those of the journalism students. Their blog posts are denoted by the use of the scales of justice icon.

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  1. W.R Grace is dirty as hell. They were the ones responsible for the pollution found in Woburn, MA, chronicled in “A Civil Action”.

  2. Funny story. I was offered a job in Libby, Mont.

    Surprisingly decent pay in an industry where there aren’t a lot of jobs. I told the guy I’d need 24 hours and that I’d talk it over with my wife. We glanced over the town’s web site and saw how gorgeous it was.

    But when I talked with the guy offering me the job, he said in an offhand manner “Make sure your apartment is EPA-inspected before you sign the lease.”

    At first, I assumed this was some weird state law or something. Then after my wife had went to bed, it hit me enough that I might need to do some more googling.

    Needless to say, I declined the offer.

  3. Reading about this project reminds me of Jim Cramer’s recent visit to John Stewart’s show. Cramer (and CNBC) could learn a lot from this kind of journalism.

  4. The stuff mined in Libby, sold under the name Zonolite, contains a particularly nasty kind of asbestos — tremolite-actinolite asbestiform mineral fibers. It’s like the plutonium of asbestos. It was repackaged at sites all over the country that are now contaminated and is still in many attics nationwide.
    Also, isn’t it funny how little national news coverage there is — corporate bigwigs rarely face criminal charges for killing 200 people. Also weird is that the Bush Justice department decided to prosecute at all.

  5. It’s nice to see a university teaching students how leverage web technologies to report stories. You’d be surprised at how many schools often treat it as an afterthought. (I hope that has changed in the last year.) We’re talking about schools that have won Hearst and Pacemaker awards yet they leave students to explore online reporting on their own. You can only hope that the school newspaper has the equipment, website capabilities, and advisers to produce online features.

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