Cameras in Court: How Television News Media Use Courtroom Footage

Article excerpt

Cameras in court epitomize the interface between two significant institutions in our society: the media and the justice system. The media serve as the primary source of information and the criminal justice system as a primary source for legitimizing values and enforcing norms.1 To accomplish their respective objectives, these two institutions have developed an interdependent relationship. Both are in the business of creating meaning. The media transform events into news stories, thus attaching significance to selected acts and framing key issues and players in political, legal, and cultural events. The courts address matters that challenge the parameters of law, culture, and politics. By interpreting actions and policies within the context of previous judicial and legislative decisions, the courts affirm or reset these parameters and social life more generally. The media and the courts have a shared understanding of the other's role and responsibilities, but there is also a dynamic tension between them.

Cameras in court could be said to exist at the nexus of this tension. Previous research, policy, and litigation have focused on the effects and implications of allowing or barring cameras in court and is most often set within a competing rights framework.2 Measuring such effects is challenging and the resulting evidence ambiguous, dius its value to policy makers is limited. An area that has received less attention is an examination of the product resulting from the venture between the courts and the media when cameras are allowed in court. In order to expand the scope of cameras in court as a policy issue we focus on a different and more practical question: how do the television news media use footage provided by the camera in court? This research presents a content analysis of local television news coverage of the criminal trial of four New York City police officers facing murder charges in the shooting of Amadou Diallo, a Bronx resident.3

An interdependent relationship

Inside the halls of justice, versions of reality are recreated based on evidence, interpretation, persuasion, and the rule of law. The outcome of that process may not meet with public approval, or satisfy a particular group or party, nor is that justice's objective. Justice is a process. When the populous feel confident that justice has been invoked they are often more willing to accept the outcome, even if they disagree. Thus "justice must satisfy the appearance of justice."4 The process of administering justice is also the process of establishing and enforcing norms and is fundamental to an orderly society. Therefore, the work of the justice system cannot happen in a vacuum and the courts rely on the media as one mechanism to publicize its responses to the social problem of crime and the pursuit of justice. Without such a vehicle of communication, the public's ability to evaluate the justice system is limited.

In our representative democracy the news media operate as trustees of the public. The government, citizens, and the media all have a vested interest in protecting the rights of the press. Without access to the workings of the government, the news media could not relay information to the public; the public's ability to assess whether their representatives are acting responsibly, legally, and in their best interest would be significandy hamstrung; and the role of the media would be compromised. Thus the news media act as a watchdog, guardians of the public interest, and conduits for communication between political players and the citizenry. The news media serve as "...feedback devices providing [public officials] with early clues to how the general, or the "informed," public feels about their actions and statements,"5 The media are not merely conveyors but also drivers of public discourse, framing and interpreting issues and information,6 Research has found that the media's influence is so pervasive that it is an independent contributor to definitions of social reality. …