High School Student Journalists Tackle Trial Court Reporting During State Competition

High School Student Journalists Tackle Trial Court Reporting During State Competition

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Bellevue West student Ms. Taegan Jacobs approached her school’s Mock Trial Coach to ask about writing a student news story on the team’s upcoming participation in the state finals. Coach Robin Katrina replied with a suggestion that Jacobs enter the newly-created student news reporter’s competition. The following week Jacobs was named the winner of Nebraska’s first annual Student Mock Trial News Reporter Contest.

Nebraska’s first-in-the-nation mock trial news reporter contest emerged as a competition within the Judge Lyle Strom High School Mock Trial Program State Championship, which was held in Omaha on December 3 and 4, 2018.

The program is the brainchild of the Nebraska State Bar Foundation (NSBF) and the Nebraska Broadcasters Association (NBA). Executive Directors Doris Huffman, NSBF, and Jim Timm, NBA, developed the idea through their work together on Nebraska’s Bench-Media Committee.

According to Huffman, “The High School Mock Trial Program began with a handful of Midwestern states that went nationwide in the mid-’80s.”  She continued, “Nebraska hosted one of the earliest regional high school mock trial competitions in 1985 – over 30 years later we are going strong and expanding the program’s focus into the critical area of court media coverage.”

The Student News Reporter Contest, now a permanent feature of Nebraska’s Judge Lyle Strom High School Mock Trial Program, is an educational component of mock trial state finals.  The goal is to teach high school students with interest in a media career about the legal system.  Student reporters watch their school team compete in the morning round of the state finals and, once the trial concludes, they attend a lunch-mentoring session. Following their lunch, student news reporters remain in their designated area where they write an article about the first-round trial using their own laptop.  Students are given a two-hour window to complete the assignment.

This year’s students were mentored by a pair of seasoned journalists: Rose Ann Shannon, now retired News Director from KETV, and Bill Kelly, Senior Producer at NET News. Journalist-turned-judge, Francie Riedmann of the Nebraska Court of Appeals rounded out the panel of advisors.  

Students asked their journalism mentors general questions about writing stories relating to the court system. One of the grading points of the competition is writing a good lead, so many conversations centered on ways to start a news story.

Shannon cautioned the students, “If you don’t get that lead, it can bog you down for the entire story process.”

Kelly offered three possible approaches when writing about court cases. He recommended taking the most attention-getting quote of the day, noting that the issue of being fair to both sides kicks in right away and writers must be careful to represent both sides equally. His second option is to have students distill the key question that a juror or judge might have to answer. In this year’s mock trial case, the question would be, “Is this person a drug dealer or not?”  His third option is to distill the courtroom experience into a mini-novel or short story.

Shannon advised the students to be on the lookout for the unusual, noting, “If you start out really dry and people can’t relate to your introduction, you can lose your reader or viewer very, very quickly.”

Riedmann asked students how much they knew about the case before watching the competition.  Answers ranged from “everything” to “I talked to the team a little bit before I came to the competition.” One of the students had heard opening and closing statements in her government class, prompting further discussion on fairness.

Riedmann cautioned, “You get a biased view from the opening statements, but that is probably where you get your best ‘big picture’ story.”  She added that it is hard to follow a case by just listening to witnesses and trying to piece everything together.

Both the High School Mock Trial and Student News Reporter competitions fall under the umbrella of the Nebraska State Bar Foundation’s Public Education Outreach Promoting the Law & Equity (PEOPLE) Committee.

“The Student News Reporter’s Contest is the perfect blend of the subcommittees of the PEOPLE Committee,” noted Supreme Court Public Information Officer Janet Bancroft. “The Bench Media Committee and the Law-Related Education Committee generally work separately – this project truly draws from both subcommittees to educate these future producers or consumers of news reporting.”

The Bar Foundation Law-Related Education Committee is chaired by Chief Judge John Gerrard, U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Nebraska.  Judge Gerrard noted, “The PEOPLE Committee is already thinking about the 2019 Student News Reporter Contest and ways to enhance this educational opportunity to include more Nebraska students.  We are pleased with the inaugural contest and will be expanding next year.” Gerrard also serves on the Bench Media Committee.

According to Huffman, the expansion of the Mock Trial Program to include a news reporting component is a natural progression and will eventually expand into a fully recognized school activity, “We intentionally started small this year but, as with all mock trial activities, the plan is to go big.” 

The Nebraska State Bar Foundation enjoys the title of Nebraska State Center for Law-Related Education for the Public as designated by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice.

Photo: Writing advisors (back): Nebraska Court of Appeals Judge Francie Riedmann; Bill Kelly, Senior Producer NET News; Rose Ann Shannon, retired News Director KETV Student reporters (front): Madeline Mollner, Scutt Catholic; Ethan Graff, McCook; Taegan Jacobs, Bellevue West.