TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Lucian Pera on May 1, 2018

Journal Issue Date: May 2018

Journal Name: May 2018 - Vol. 54, No. 5

I had lunch with an old friend the other day, a grizzled veteran of the news business. As such conversations often do, our talk eventually turned to the current state of journalism. We needed no pundit to explain to us the dramatic changes in the news business over the last two decades or so.

When TV news killed most afternoon newspapers in the 1970s,

those alive then thought the world might end, too. But as the internet and social media have carved traditional media into frail shells of their former glory, everyone even remotely connected to journalism has felt the earthquake. Readers and consumers of news have also felt the shockwaves.

To many these days — not only the young — “checking the news” means checking your news feed on Facebook or Twitter. Whether you think “fake news” describes the output of some brand-name news outlets or the statements of some politicians, it’s obvious that trust in professional journalists and their media employers is declining, just like trust in other civic institutions.

Why should we lawyers care? Several reasons.

One bracing reason is that the same forces that have totally reshaped the news business and journalism are now gripping the law business. I’ve talked about those changes in this space, but that’s beside today’s point.As lawyers, we should care because one of the clear effects of the changing news media landscape is less reporting on the law and the legal system and, just possibly, a decline in the overall quality of that coverage.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the less our fellow citizens know about how our courts work, and how the law works and affects all our lives outside the courthouse, the less faith they will have — or can legitimately have — in the rule of law at the foundation of our society and our freedom.

My lunch companion commented that he spent his formative years as a cub newspaper reporter daily covering the local federal courts. Today, he said, his former employer has no reporter regularly assigned to cover that courthouse. Sure, they cover murder trials in state court, he said, but the depth, breadth and volume of coverage of the law and the legal system has dropped precipitously.

Your TBA can do many things, but it can’t reverse any of these big trends. But can we encourage better legal journalism in Tennessee? Maybe so.

Lawyers know the law and the legal system and how it affects the lives of our communities. We know it better than our fellow citizens. That means we know good reporting on these subjects when we see it.

We can tell the difference between routine who-what-when-where-why coverage of a verdict in a murder trial and reporting that actually explains in English why an appeals court reversed that conviction. We understand the difficulty and value of reporting on how trends in bankruptcy filings reflect and affect real lives in our community. And we understand that more and better good legal reporting, the legal system, and how it affects our lives is good for the law, the legal system and our communities.

That’s why the TBA has established the TBA Fourth Estate Award, honoring courageous reporting on justice and the law.

The mandate of the award is to honor journalists who show exemplary courage in exercising their (and our) First Amendment rights to promote public understanding of the Rule of Law and how our legal system works or should work. The award committee takes a very broad view of who may qualify: they’ve announced that an honoree can be from the
world of newspapers, TV, radio, digital media, book publishing or social media.

Former TBA President Bill Haltom of Memphis chairs the blue-ribbon award committee, which includes attorneys Justin Joy of Memphis, Paul McAdoo of Nashville, Nick McCall of Knoxville, and Alex Wharton of Memphis, as well as former journalist Margie Nichols of Knoxville.

Nominate Someone by May 10

If you know a worthy recipient, act quickly, as our nominations deadline is May 10, 2018. You can nominate online at www.tba.org/fourth-estate-award.

It’s not the Pulitzer Prize (yet), and there are no huge cash prizes, but it just might grow into a recognition that matters.

You can think of it as a small way to not just fight fake news, but to honor good reporting on the law.

Lucian T. Pera LUCIAN T. PERA is a partner in the Memphis office of Adams and Reese LLP. A Memphis native, he is a graduate of Princeton University and Vanderbilt University School of Law. He is a former TBA YLD President and a past ABA Treasurer. His wife Jane is just disappointed that her buddy Bill Haltom is (probably) disqualified from receiving the award. You can reach him at Lucian.Pera@arlaw.com.