When trial begins of the four white New York City police officers accused of killing with a barrage of 41 bullets Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, the media will be on trial as well. The question: Whether they turn the potentially explosive case into a sensational, racially charged circus or an august exploration of its difficult social implications.
In a surprising decision this week, state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi ruled that cameras will be allowed to broadcast most of the proceedings. While cameras are common in most state courts, New York is one of only three states, along with the federal judiciary, to ban them outright. Judge Teresi ruled that was unconstitutional.
It was a victory for media outlets who've long argued that television coverage is a First Amendment right that can help bolster Americans' understanding of the judicial system. But critics say that's just an excuse to cash in commercially on sensational trials.
And a recent study found the media's handling of the last decade's most lurid high-profile cases has actually undermined public confidence in the court system.
"Over 40 percent said they had less confidence that the law would protect them [as a result of watching those cases]," says Richard Fox, a political scientist at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. "That was the most troubling statistic."
The national survey conducted last spring also found that only 14 percent of Americans said media coverage of cases - such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the William Kennedy Smith rape case - bolstered their confidence in the justice system. Forty-one percent said their views were unchanged.
Supporters of cameras in the courts dismiss the study, noting that, overall, Americans retain a fair amount of trust in the court system. They credit that in part to the fact that more citizens now know what the inside of a courtroom looks like and how it works.
A study by the National Center for State Courts found that 23 percent of Americans have a "great deal" of confidence in their community courts, while 52 percent have "some" confidence. Douglas Jacobs, general counsel of Court TV, which led the effort to open the Diallo case to cameras, says the trials included in the Union College survey were aberrations.
"We have televised over 700 trials without there being a circus-like atmosphere merely because the camera was in the courtroom," he says.
Professor Fox doesn't disagree with that. In fact, he's not opposed to cameras in the court in principle. In the Diallo case, which was moved from New York's Bronx borough to Albany because of intense media coverage, Fox believes cameras can play an important role in helping people in the mostly minority Bronx see whether justice is fairly dispensed in mostly white Albany.
The question is whether the media can restrain their impulse to dramatize and, instead, play a positive role.
While court TV may be exemplary, with its wall-to-wall coverage and thoughtful analysis, most people get their news from the networks and the 24-hour news channels. These tend to show snippets of the courtroom action, often book-ended by pundits with a "play by play" take on the action.
"I think [supporters of cameras in the courts] underestimate the tabloid nature of the press. They're interested in ratings," says Fox. "In the Diallo case, there's certainly the possibility that they'll try to exploit it along racial lines, like they did with the O.J. Simpson trial."
In several states, a chill was put on the effort to expand broadcast coverage of the courts as a direct result of the exploitive nature of the "all O.J., all the time" coverage. But that has pretty much thawed. And supporters note the press has also cleaned up its act since then.
But many also believe it will be incumbent on media organizations to be particularly careful in reporting the Diallo trial because of the uncertain status of cameras in the New York courts. They had been allowed for 10 years under an experiment. When it ended in 1997, the state legislature opted not to renew it. Teresi called that a "monument to politically created procrastination and inaction."
But the ruling will apply only to the Diallo case because neither side will appeal. That could throw the issue back into the hands of legislators who will be watching the Albany trial carefully.
"Maybe because of this ruling the New York state legislature will do the right thing," says Dean John Fareek of the Fordham Law School, who headed up the state committee that reviewed New York's experiment. "And that's to allow for the continuance of cameras in the courts."
But if the Diallo trial turns into another show of media excess, some critics worry the ruling could have the opposite effect, and even ripple into the federal judiciary.
It had a three-year experiment in selected courts, but its governing board decided to continue its blanket ban on cameras. A bill pending in Congress would override that and allow cameras in at the judge's discretion.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society