Are Federal Cases Headed for Television?

By Denniston, Lyle | American Journalism Review, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Are Federal Cases Headed for Television?


Denniston, Lyle, American Journalism Review


The technology of the broadcast news industry is changing at a dizzying rate. But the federal courts continue to move into the television age at a crawl. A small advance took place recently with the first official support for easing the ban on airing federal criminal trials.

By early 1996, the first televised federal criminal trial could occur. But even that may be only an experiment. Lawyers for the broadcast press, repeatedly frustrated in efforts to get cameras into the U.S. courts, no longer seek bold gestures; they are content to solicit incremental change.

Americans may have become a visual people, but all they see of federal criminal cases are artists' sketches, sometimes good likenesses but with none of the drama and sound of the real thing.

By contrast, the nation has long watched state criminal trials, including recent high-profile legal battles involving Rodney King, the Bobbitts and William Kennedy Smith. Junkies now have Court TV to provide them all the coverage they can handle. Thirtynine states allow cameras in the courtroom.

But celebrated federal cases over the years--Watergate, Iran-contra, the World Trade Center bombing--have been blacked out.

Since July 1991, federal courts have conducted an experiment with cameras in federal civil trials. An interim report last November by the Federal Judicial Center (the research arm of the federal courts) indicated the test had worked well.

Among the center's conclusions: Judges and lawyers generally found television had no effect on the behavior of the participants; judges viewed the cameras more favorably after presiding over televised trials; and the news media did not break the rules.

The test, due to run through the end of the year, was confined to civil cases because of the long-standing federal rule that "the taking of photographs" during criminal proceedings "shall not be permitted by the court."

It's not easy to modify such regulations. Changes must be approved by a judicial rules committee, the U.S. Judicial Conference (the policy making arm of the U.S. judiciary), the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress.

The process has begun. On April 18, the Advisory Committee on Criminal Rules (a panel of the Judicial Conference) endorsed a suggestion by a coalition of broadcasters and publishers that the Judicial Conference be empowered to write guidelines allowing and regulating televised criminal trials. …

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