The Utah judicial establishment has debated for decades whether it should join the majority of state court systems and allow television cameras to record and broadcast proceedings. Proponents have argued cameras would bring more transparency, while opponents have worried they might disrupt courtroom decorum.
By deciding to grant liberal access to cameras beginning this month, the judiciary has done the responsible thing. Now, the broadcast media must act responsibly.
The Utah Judicial Council voted to allow a single television "pool" camera to be present in both civil and criminal trials. The experience of others states indicates commotion caused by the presence of cameras is relatively rare. But there remains concern that a camera, no matter how discreetly placed, might still contribute to a circus atmosphere, especially in high-profile cases.
It is a fact of life that cases lending themselves toward the sensational are the ones most likely to attract news crews. The vast majority will involve criminal cases, where emotional testimony and dramatic evidentiary displays – now recorded on video -- will provide tantalizing fodder for the producers of evening newscasts.
The public interest in allowing cameras in courtrooms is that it may enlighten the citizenry on the functioning of its judicial institutions while also enhancing accountability. It is not to increase ratings for local TV news. Responsible media will take advantage of their new levels of access to produce reports that educate as well as inform. Less responsible media will err toward the salacious.
On balance, the Judicial Council is to be commended for its judicious approach to the issue. Rules will be in place to allow judges discretion to remove cameras or restrict their use depending on the circumstances of the proceedings. A chief concern is the comfort of witnesses – especially victims of crime – who are anxious about testifying and even more anxious about being widely identified as someone who has taken the witness stand.
The council also decided to take an unprecedented step by addressing the use of smartphones and other devices and systems that have sprung up in a wave of technological innovation. They cannot be used to photograph proceedings, but journalists and others who may wish to send instant updates through social media or other platforms will now have some latitude to do so.
It is a significant step toward allowing for better real-time coverage of proceedings, as well as opening them up to a wider audience. The court system serves the citizenry, and citizens have always been welcome behind courthouse doors, with some exceptions. Now, through the medium of television, more people will be privy to the give-and-take of important litigation, assuming, of course, that those who edit and disseminate the recordings do so in a journalistically sound manner.
We are fortunate in Utah to be served by electronic media outlets generally disposed toward fair and objective reporting. Video recordings can help tell the story in more direct fashion.
The Judicial Council is wise to have recognized the greater good is served by allowing for more openness. Justice may be blind, but the process in which it is delivered is something the general public should be able to see.