TV Cameras on Trial

Television cameras are allowed in courtrooms in 47 of the 50 states. But New York may make that 46.

That state's legislature is considering whether a law permitting TV cameras inside a courtroom should be altered or thrown out altogether. Legislators allowed the law to expire last month while they continued debate.

Although that law did give judges the authority to bar cameras and shield certain witnesses, such as rape victims, from being filmed while on the stand, that's not enough, critics argue. They maintain that TV cameras should be banned altogether, as they are in federal courtrooms.

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Why?

Look at the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial, critics say. The presence of cameras led lawyers to grandstand. Broadcasters tried to outsensationalize each other. The cameras became an entertainment-industry tool. In contrast, the Oklahoma City bombing trial in Denver, with cameras banned, was orderly, well reported, and not sensationalized.

True. But celebrity trials in general, and the Simpson case in particular, should not be used as a barometer in the "keep cameras versus ban them" debate. Celebrity trials are rare, a tiny percentage of cases in any state.

Judges are in the best position to decide whether or not cameras will be a detrimental influence in widely differing cases. Though many legal specialists say Judge Ito made a mistake in allowing TV cameras at the Simpson trial, others (including the father of one of the murder victims) argue that TV played an important role in revealing inadequacies in the legal system.

Many studies have shown that the presence of cameras doesn't impede the trial process or negatively affect participants. Of course that's not invariably true. So, in exceptional cases, judges should have authority to ban cameras and shield witnesses - as they can under New York's expired law. (That law still may be revived and extended if legislators can reach an agreement.)

As Don Hewitt, producer of CBS's "60 Minutes," told the Monitor, some trials should be broadcast, others should not. A judge should be smart enough to see when a camera will turn a courtroom into a circus. We agree.

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