As a courtroom junkie since my early reporting days, it is at great personal sacrifice that I suggest the following: It may be time to get television cameras out of the courtroom.
Or at least, judges might be encouraged to exclude electronic media from high-profile trials.
The excessive coverage and commentary we’ve watched in recent years may be good theater but bad for justice. Most recently, we’ve been witness to the carnival trial of George Zimmerman, charged in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. We’ve seen the families; we’ve met neighbors and friends; and we’ve heard the screaming on the recorded 911 call.
I have written about all of the above, true. But here’s the difference. If I were sitting in the courtroom with pad and pen, no one would notice or care. The pen may be mightier than the sword — and a picture may be worth a thousand words — but video cameras alter reality. Their very presence changes the people and events they seek to capture. And, just to keep those cliches rolling, although seeing is believing, what we project for others to see is influenced — and reality is altered — by the fact that a camera is recording that projection.
We’ve always known this on some abstract level, but our curiosity — and, ostensibly, our mighty respect for the public’s right to know — has clouded our judgment. There may be no way to quantitatively prove that cameras influence courtroom behavior and, possibly, a trial’s outcome. But anyone who has ever sat in front of a camera knows that it is so.
Meanwhile, the notion of the public’s right to know every detail of what is essentially a show trial suffers a paucity of veracity. If our concern were truly to better understand the machinations of the judicial system, as some have argued, we would record and broadcast all trial proceedings rather than only the ones that involve key elements of modern tabloid storytelling, namely sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — and race.
The Zimmerman trial is riveting not because two men got in a scuffle and one of them died or because one was a teenager and the other an armed adult. It is that one was black, the supposed victim of a profiling vigilante, and the other white.
Voilà: We have a potboiler.
Imagine if Martin had been white under the same circumstances. Some might argue that Zimmerman would not have found Martin suspicious had he been white, but we can’t know this. We can debate the point until we’re all blue, but meanwhile, we can be fairly certain that the trial would not have attracted a single camera if not for the race element.
The point: Media are only interested in stories involving tension, whatever its underpinnings. And, inarguably, the media are providing what people, too, most care about. One Google trends chart “of interest over time” shows that people are more focused on the Zimmerman trial than they are on Egypt or the fate of Mohamed Morsi.
It is pointless to blame the media for essentially doing their job — providing information the public wants. Our attention, thus, would be more appropriately aimed at our own prurience and, given the human appetite for same, the court’s responsibility in protecting the defendant’s right to as fair a trial as possible.
This means ensuring a “neutral and detached environment,” as Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki put it in his ruling to ban media coverage of O.J. Simpson’s civil trial. The presence of electronic media in the criminal trial — very little of which I missed, I should say — “significantly diverted and distracted the participants,” Fujisaki wrote, adding that “the conduct of witnesses and counsel were unduly influenced by the presence of the electronic media.”
Fujisaki also was concerned that the jury, which was not sequestered, would be influenced by outside commentary. Although Zimmerman’s jury is sequestered, the judicial environment is hardly neutral or detached. One way or another, the media’s incessant dissection of every little shred of evidence or testimony leaks into the courtroom and contaminates the atmosphere. When lawyers and witnesses hear their own performances critiqued — and evidence is evaluated by one of the legions of former prosecutors-turned-experts — suddenly the audience is directing the play.
Put another way: If it were your neck on the line, you’d probably rather the media were in Cairo.