Sunday, September 24, 2006

JURIST: Tomorrow’s Source for Legal News and Information

The field of law is in constant growth and change as society advances and new issues and situations present themselves. We use these laws to protect ourselves and live our lives safely and fairly. The typical lawyer is aware of the past, present and future development of laws and is trained every few years to maintain his or her knowledge. The average citizen, however, is not aware of their rights, rules and regulations they live beneath nor what laws may soon change. Today, there are several websites on the Internet that provide useful information about law, current cases and decisions. Given these sources, it is often still difficult to differentiate relevant and accredited websites from those which are not. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 31% of Internet users report using the Internet to get news while 38% report using a search engine to find information. With these growing numbers, it is helpful for Internet users to be able to directly visit a website that they trust and can use on a daily basis knowing they are receiving the most up to date and accurate news and information. JURIST: Legal News and Information, a 2006 Webby Award winning legal site, was created and is currently operated by students and professors of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and other highly notable individuals in the field of law. The site features current news, research and interactive categories that allow users to gain legal knowledge both from the past and that which is relevant today.

The innovative approach to legal news which JURIST uses allows the site to stand apart from others in its class. JURSIT prides itself as being a fusion of “PBS and CSPAN for legal news” while “its objective news philosophy and its global agenda are modeled on the BBC World Service.” This validates the professionalism of the site content as well as the goal and purpose behind it. Some of the more attractive features of the site include the most recent news and activity in the legal world that is presented to the audience. An initial visit to the page provides a wealth of information as to what is going on in the legal arena both in the U.S. and internationally. Aditionally, a section entitled “This Day At Law” shares a case decision or law that was implemented on the particular date in which the user is visiting the site. This feature easily expands one's knowledge while implementing the idea of using a fun fact to educate those who may have otherwise never had any formal introduction to law. The site also has live webcasts of current court cases, conferences and briefings as well as an archive of other videos. The most attractive feature of the site is that it is completely commercial and ad-free, and can be used to its fullest extent without any subscription or registration hindrance. Lastly, the documents subsection allows readers to get a deeper understanding as to why certain rulings were made (e.g., on which laws they were based) – a great tool for those unfamiliar with the field of law. Despite its many revolutionary attributes, minor adjustments would enhance JURIST's current success.

The first issue lies in the design of the homepage. According to the Webby Awards judging guidelines, “good visual design is high quality, appropriate, and relevant for the audience and the message it is supporting. It communicates a visual experience and may even take your breath away.” At first glance, the homepage looks useful with information about pressing legal matters, the next live webcast, forums, hotlines etc.; however, it is extremely cluttered and segmented in an odd fashion with unnecessary categories and links. The homepage offers too much of the site at once, and the links at the top simply take the user to what is already present on the homepage. The Web Style Guide emphasizes that the homepage is the most visited page of the site and therefore it is also an “ideal place to put a menu of links or table of contents.” This is something JURSIT once had in its 1998 format but lacks today. Also, because everything is already present on one page, it leaves no room for the user’s role which, according to the judging criteria, is important for users “to be able to give and receive and insists that you participate not spectate.” One example of this is the “Location of Latest Readers” heading on the homepage. It shows users where the most recent readers are geographically located such as "San Diego, US" along with the time they logged on "12:41 AM ET." Although this may be interesting to some, it is not something that needs to bombard the homepage. Instead, this feature can be placed under the “About Jurist” section, giving readers something to search for and the ability to interact with the website.

Although the site reveals that is it mainly written by law school students, the professionalism of the font and formatting is absent. According to the Web Style Guide, legibility is key in maintaining reader interest while pointing out “if you cram every page with dense text, readers see a wall of gray and will instinctively reject the lack of visual contrast.” Under the “Forum” heading on the JURIST website, one is given the opportunity to read the analysis of various cases and laws written by law professors and professionals. Examples of intriguing and informative content is shown in “Why Guantanamo?” which questions "whether the US government can seize aliens and put them beyond the reach of law" andFive Years Later: Law and the Fog of 9/11” which analyzes how "the lingering fog of the 9/11 attacks has clouded our perceptions, blurred our legal categories, and perhaps also compromised our judgment." While both forum articles are well-written and present new perspectives, the legibility of each is vague and over extensive. The Web Style Guide clarifies that “just making things uniformly bigger doesn’t help” but rather does not allow anything to stand out while taking away from the reliability of the text could potentially bore readers causing a lack of interest. Typography should be used as a tool to create organization for the site, draw readers in and establish credibility.

The most important section of the site is the legal news arena, which discusses domestic and world legal news. The purpose of the latest headlines and stories is to give readers an opportunity to familiarize themselves with what is going on in the legal world and the details behind it. JURIST successfully covers breaking news stories; however, it does so with a very short synopsis and several external links. The articles that cover the news seem rushed, leaving readers wanting more information and details but requiring them to navigate away from the site to find more. Although concise writing is always effective, the Web Style Guide stresses that one should not “dumb down” what needs to be said. For example, a legal news article entitled “Ex-Enron VP gets reduced sentence for insider trading” covers Paul Rieker's sentence of "2 years probation for insider trading, avoiding up to ten years' imprisonment" and gives a one sentence description of the Enron case while leaving out several details. The article ends the short synopsis with “AP (Associated Press) has more;” however, it provides no access to AP. Using fewer links in these articles or providing an option of finding an extended version of the article would improve the current layout and form of the news section. According to the Web Style Guide, links are meant to “reinforce your message,” not to provide the entire story. The overuse of links is not recommended; rather, the use of just a few links would help expand content and provide comprehensiveness of the articles.

In the “About Jurist” section, JURIST provides a great deal of information in regards to its purpose and history of development. It shares names and information about the writers such as how "JURIST's ongoing legal news coverage is written and edited by its regular law school staff," funding details "supported by hardware and special seed funds provided by the University of Pittsburgh School of Law," the location of its latest readers (which is unnecessarily revealed on almost every sub-section page one clicks on) and other information. JURIST also prides itself on the fact that it “eschews sensational legal news about crimes, trials and celebrities, and instead concentrates on legal issues with significant jurisprudential, social and political implications.” Although the purpose behind focusing on more substantive issues is commendable, the very cases that do attract mass media appeal are often the most important. To avoid writing about cases that involve celebrities and attract a wide audience is to avoid a great deal of legal news and information that is important to discuss, analyze and teach. For example, the John Mark Karr case which dealt with the murder of five-year old beauty queen Jon Benet Ramsey had a high mass media appeal, yet is a case that reveals the thought process behind a criminal mind and one which also reveals how laws and the judicial system work to bring justice. A vast array of legal information and research was applied to this case which, if similar cases were covered, could have served to attract even more readers for the site from the current “919,000” into the millions. After all, as mentioned in the Webby Award judging criteria, “good content should be engaging, relevant and appropriate for the audience” which can and should include celebrity and mass media cases without having to sacrifice the credibility of the site.

JURIST is a highly reputable website given its award winning position. It has several groundbreaking attributes that other websites in the legal realm lack. The main area of improvement lies in development of current sections and subsections as well as a greater focus on details. The homepage is one of the most crucial areas that should be considered for improvement. It is the first page users are taken to and is “the most visited” according to the Web Style Guide. It is important to clear any clutter and unnecessary information that decorates the page. The typography is also in need of a remodeling in order to segment the site better and differentiate points of interest versus other areas that may not be as informative. It is key for a successful and professional site to stray far from any amateur designs, which can hinder its viewership. JURIST should also focus on providing more information in its news articles. It is important to provide more information while remaining concise in order to be effective. Lastly, JURIST should reevaluate its purpose behind banning articles on mass media and high profile criminal cases. Covering such stories will not compromise the name of the school nor its amount of readers; rather, it would help increase the number of visitors. If the aforementioned issues are regarded and considered, JURIST will prove to be a great asset to those with an interest in legal cases, a career in law and possibly attract those who never imagined they would have an interest in expanding their legal knowledge.


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