Court cameras: Crucial but underwhelming?
One big, fat journalism trap local newspapers can fall into is the "no effect seen here" story.
It stems from the well-intentioned effort to "localize" a big story. Reporters will call their mayors and village/school board members for their reaction to some event of epic proportions, but get a cautious, "Well, we don't see that U.S. Supreme Court ruling as having any effect here."
Hope I didn't fall into the trap of setting up a column that's going to be all about a "no effect seen here" story. No, I wouldn't do that to you. But it is worth noting that "no effect seen here" is one of many responses Josh Stockinger, who covers the DuPage County court system, received when he delved into an in-depth piece on a dramatic event that's coming soon to the suburbs: cameras in the courtroom. His story notes DuPage County is likely next in line for cameras, but soon to be followed by Cook County and then the other collar counties. Stockinger also appears on ABC 7 Sunday Morning News today to discuss the piece.
Until this year, Illinois dragged its heels on allowing television and still cameras in the courtroom, even though it's been allowed in three-quarters of the states, some for decades. But as of January, individual circuit courts could apply to allow on a trial basis local media to shoot video or take picture of trials and other procedures. As Stockinger's story points out in detail, this experiment comes with numerous restrictions, such as limiting the type of proceedings and who can be photographed.
Most of the legal experts he interviewed indicated they think this new level of transparency would be a good thing. Otherwise, opinions were all over the map on the impact the landmark change will bring. One lawyer proffered the no-effect-seen-here theory.
"I don't think cameras will help or hurt my clients in any way. The facts affect my clients, not cameras," Geneva defense attorney D.J. Tegeler told Stockinger, quickly adding that the change will be "fantastic for the general public."
But others suggest there will be an inevitable amount of playing to the cameras.
"I think the attorneys and the witnesses are going to play to the cameras," said Brian Telander, a Glen Ellyn defense attorney, and former Cook County prosecutor and DuPage County judge. "It could even affect how judges and prosecutors perform. When I watch TV where cameras are in court, I can see the difference in how they're handling themselves."
Stockinger's experts brought up a couple of other key points. One noted that this might require a new definition of what constitutes "the media" because in today's world some mope with a blog might consider himself a member of the fourth estate.
But the most telling remark, to me, came from the professor who pointed out that anyone expecting high courtroom drama from our local circuit court cases is in for a big disappointment. "It's not like TV where there is high drama every two minutes. It's a long, laborious process," said Northern Illinois University law professor David Taylor.
Stockinger and other courtroom reporters will tell you that's true, that dramatic courtroom moments certainly occur, but they are far outweighed by a ton of courtroom protocol and procedure, continuances, status calls and uninteresting witnesses.
Which is why, if you'll indulge a plug for the value of your local newspaper, we'll still be the ones who will be in court even as the cameras roll, to cut the wheat from the chaff and bring you the essence of what you need to know about criminal and civil matters. Hopefully, that will have value, even if televised proceedings result in no effect seen here.
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