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Burriss on Media: Cameras in the Courtroom


By Larry Burriss, PhD


Murfreesboro, TN – They say "the devil is in the details," but a news story from Knoxville shows we sometimes need to step back and look at the big picture.

It seems a judge in Knox County, acting only on the word of an assistant district attorney, has barred still photography and television coverage of testimony of a school principal who is a shooting victim. Ok, that's the basic outline, except that the Tennessee Supreme Court has said there must be a hearing before a judge can limit media coverage. A "hearing" means both sides get to present arguments.

The big picture here is that this is one more instance where a government official has unilaterally decided to limit media coverage of something of interest to the public, namely how trials are conducted.

Now, it's true print reporters can write about the testimony, artists can sketch the participants, and a stenographer will have a word-by-word record. But the ban creates more problems than the judge is perhaps trying to prevent.

First, it's always a bad precedent when an official tries to keep any media outlet from covering the people's government. Second, media coverage can show how the justice system is, or is not, functioning like it is supposed to. And television provides a unique ability to show details not available in print or in still photographs.

Third, coverage by complementary media forms provides a check on media reporting. After all, readers and viewers can see for themselves what is being reported, and can compare and contrast the various forms. Finally, when media coverage is limited the inevitable question in the minds of the public, rightly or wrongly, is, "what are they trying to hide?"

You may have noticed, I've been deliberately vague about the trial and the testimony. But trials are traditionally open to all media forms, and that is the big picture that really matters here.

I'm Larry Burriss.