Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Broadcast cameras in the courtrooms? Will they add clutter or comprehension

This may sound odd, but I am a reporter-type person who isn’t all that enthused about the decision by the Supreme Court of Illinois to let broadcasters have cameras in the courtrooms.

We'll soon get to see the inside of this bulding on our televisions.

And not just because I enjoy the sight of those sketch artists who do their quickie drawings that help illustrate for television newscasts what happened in a courtroom on any given day.

A PART OF me would like to think that those sketches would still be included in broadcast reports of courthouse activity. But I’m sure they will now be seen as a frivolous expense that can be cut.

Now, the courtrooms for the circuit courts throughout Illinois will come across as dull-looking activity with a lot of people speaking in legalese. The talking heads will wind up coming across as legal translators – letting people know just what was meant by all the gibberish they just heard.

If that means that people get a more honest view of what courtroom activity is all about, that is a good thing. And I suppose anything that encourages broadcast news reports to spend more time at the courthouse (many ignore it as much as possible BECAUSE of the fact that they can’t have their cameras inside the courtroom) is a positive.

Yet I’m still not enthused.

BECAUSE I WILL admit that during the times of my working life when I covered courthouse activity on a full-time basis (currently, I do some work for one of the suburban daily newspapers that occasionally sends me to the Cook County Criminal Courts building, the district courthouse in Markham and the Will County Circuit Court in Joliet), one of the attractions of the beat was that you didn’t have broadcast types adding to the clutter with their equipment.

The idea that we’re going to have masses of broadcast people cramming their way into what are often cramped courtroom facilities (I have seen rooms about the size of a master bedroom – minus the private toilet facilities) is going to add to the chaos factor.

For a reporter-type trying to comprehend what is happening in several courtrooms simultaneously, anything adding to the chaos is a potential drawback.

I also must admit to a selfish motivation – I always enjoyed the idea that the courts were a place where one had to turn to the written word for serious reporting.

NOT THAT I think allowing the broadcast news outlets more access to the courthouse will make their efforts more serious.

I’m well aware of the priorities of broadcasting and know that the time limits of a news story (1:30, at most; 30 seconds more common) will mean that most courthouse activity will still continue to be ignored.

It will be only the occasional trial that will draw broadcast news coverage. Most trials will continue to be newspaper (and their affiliated websites)-covered only!

I’m hoping that the circuit courts (the Supreme Court’s decision does NOT apply to the U.S. District courts in Chicago, Springfield or Marion) will follow the lead of the state appeals courts that have had limited camera access.

IN THOSE COURTROOMS, there is a lone camera set up, and television stations use the video provided by the courts themselves.

Which is a problem if the courts decide to start self-editing what they allow television stations to see. What it means is that anybody who thinks we’re getting unfettered access to the courthouse is reading way too much into all of this.

So we’re not really getting as much of a view of the courthouse as some people might think we are – and the pictures don’t mean much of anything without an intelligible reporter-type to explain what they mean. All the more reason to not get so excited about the change that the state Supreme Court announced Tuesday.
CUOCO: Believable as Stacey?

There’s one other reason I’m not enthused about this change. Because many television stations are only going to selectively send their cameras to the courthouses, it could well be that the first trial of any significance that will get broadcast coverage will be the case in Will County concerning Drew Peterson.

PEOPLE WHO ACTUALLY watched that Lifetime network film about the case will get to see just how inaccurate (Kaley Cuoco as Stacey strikes me as a particularly large stretch of the imagination) it truly was. Peterson himself calls the film, “hysterical.”

Of course, I think the real Drew will turn out to be hysterical enough on his own.

And now, we’re likely to get to see him in all his glory. Which I’m sure will feed his ego even moreso.

An ego-bloated Drew Peterson might well be the perfect reason why we should question the idea of a camera recording the courtroom activity for all to see.


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