When trial begins of the four white New York City police officers
accused of killing with a barrage of 41 bullets Amadou Diallo, an
unarmed African immigrant, the media will be on trial as well. The
question: Whether they turn the potentially explosive case into a
sensational, racially charged circus or an august exploration of its
difficult social implications.
In a surprising decision this week, state Supreme Court Justice
Joseph Teresi ruled that cameras will be allowed to broadcast most
of the proceedings. While cameras are common in most state courts,
New York is one of only three states, along with the federal
judiciary, to ban them outright. Judge Teresi ruled that was
It was a victory for media outlets who've long argued that
television coverage is a First Amendment right that can help bolster
Americans' understanding of the judicial system. But critics say
that's just an excuse to cash in commercially on sensational trials.
And a recent study found the media's handling of the last
decade's most lurid high-profile cases has actually undermined
public confidence in the court system.
"Over 40 percent said they had less confidence that the law would
protect them [as a result of watching those cases]," says Richard
Fox, a political scientist at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.
"That was the most troubling statistic."
The national survey conducted last spring also found that only 14
percent of Americans said media coverage of cases - such as the O.J.
Simpson murder trial and the William Kennedy Smith rape case -
bolstered their confidence in the justice system. Forty-one percent
said their views were unchanged.
Supporters of cameras in the courts dismiss the study, noting
that, overall, Americans retain a fair amount of trust in the court
system. They credit that in part to the fact that more citizens now
know what the inside of a courtroom looks like and how it works.
A study by the National Center for State Courts found that 23
percent of Americans have a "great deal" of confidence in their
community courts, while 52 percent have "some" confidence. Douglas
Jacobs, general counsel of Court TV, which led the effort to open
the Diallo case to cameras, says the trials included in the Union
College survey were aberrations.
"We have televised over 700 trials without there being a circus-
like atmosphere merely because the camera was in the courtroom," he
Professor Fox doesn't disagree with that. In fact, he's not
opposed to cameras in the court in principle. In the Diallo case,
which was moved from New York's Bronx borough to Albany because of
intense media coverage, Fox believes cameras can play an important
role in helping people in the mostly minority Bronx see whether
justice is fairly dispensed in mostly white Albany. …