Wichita Eagle crime reporter brings a multimedia approach to courtroom storytelling
By Geri L. Dreiling, Esq
When it comes to reporting, Ron Sylvester is no rookie. He’s spent 30 years as a journalist, the last 10 as the courthouse and legal affairs reporter for the Wichita Eagle.
Sylvester has covered his fair share of nightmare-inducing high-profile cases.
He reported on the court confession of Dennis Rader, the serial killer known as BTK, who killed 10 people in the Wichita area between 1974 and 1991. Sylvester also covered the murder trial of the Carr brothers, two men who went on a shockingly brutal crime spree in Wichita during the winter of 2000 that left four people dead.
Although he has chronicled some of the worst of humanity, Sylvester has also witnessed the best of what law enforcement and the judicial system has to offer. It is at that place where the legal system and criminal conduct meet that Sylvester’s talents as a reporter are evident.
But his talent for storytelling isn’t confined to print. Sylvester was one of the first beat reporters in the nation to tweet from the courtroom, and in 2008 he launched a blog named after the quote attributed to Jerome Frank that explains how a judge reaches a decision: “What the Judge Ate for Breakfast.”
That blog now includes a video component starring actual lawyers, judges, sheriffs and probation officers working in Sedgwick County, Kan. Titled “Common Law,” the videos, generally around two minutes apiece, vividly depict real-life courtroom and law enforcement drama.
Some of the videos are serious. In one, a prosecutor discusses the fact he’s happy that a plea deal was reached in a case in which a stepfather was charged with raping and setting fire to his stepdaughter because it means that the girl will be spared from testifying. In another, a judge finally loses patience with a woman who has been given five chances to stay off drugs while on probation and sends her to jail.
Others are amusing: For instance, a sheriff’s deputy discovers while arresting a man that he went to high school with the suspect.
For this blog post I’m pleased to bring you a question-and-answer session with Ron Sylvester.
How did you persuade the courts to give you camera access in the courtroom?
In Kansas, we are allowed to photograph and record video of court proceedings (Kansas Supreme Court Rule 1001). I’ve covered courts here for 10 years, so I know what judges expect under this rule and I follow it, so I really haven’t had any problems.
I’m also fortunate that judges here understand the new technology of the news. I was one of the first reporters in the country to cover trials via Twitter, and the judges were open to it from the start. I’ve even tweeted from federal court here in Wichita.
It also helps that I’ve worked the beat for so long. The judges trust me because I’ve worked the beat for so long.
From prosecutors to public defenders to judges, you have many regulars appearing in your videos.
Yes, I do. I wanted viewers to be able to get to know the individual lawyers, kind of like the cast of reality show.
One judge who appears regularly is Sedgwick County Judge David Kaufman. Judge Kaufman has basically given me permission to video just about any hearing in his court. He knows what to expect, and I always give him notice that I’m coming, but he’s been great about it, and he’s a big believer in open courts. He likes the educational value of this series, and he feels letting people see what happens in court helps them understand the judicial system and creates confidence in the system.
The prosecutor who appears regularly, Marc Bennett, and the public defender, Lacy Gilmour, appear before different judges, but so far all of the judges understand what I’m doing and they’ve been very open to letting me record hearings. The judges like that someone is interested in the daily routines. I also received permission from the sheriff’s office to interview the two deputies featured on the blog.
How have the lawyers reacted to video in the courtroom?
I have gotten a few surprised looks from lawyers when they see me set up my camera and mics. At first they wondered why the newspaper guy had the video camera; then they always wonder, “Why is this case special?” My answer is “It’s not. That’s the point.”
As word of the blog spread, they’ve gotten used to see me pop in for random hearings — but what I’ve found is, there is usually an interesting story behind these “routine hearings.”
Do you have a favorite video?
One of my favorites is the one about the young woman who was getting probation for a meth violation but because she had a juvenile conviction for burglary years before she didn’t qualify for state-funded drug treatment…she worked at Sonic, and the judge commented about how legislators pass laws with little regard to their real-life impact.
If you want to know more Sylvester’s project, including more details about the technology he uses to put the segments together, check out “How a blog, a camera and a court are feeding journalism’s long tail,” written by Mac Slocum for the Nieman Journalism Lab.
Now it’s your turn. If you’re a lawyer, how would you feel about appearing in a video? If you’re a beat reporter, is this something the judges in your courthouse would allow?
On Wednesday, guest poster Enrique Serrano helps you understand why using a tool such as Google Analytics is important in measuring your website’s performance and he explains how to install it.
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