Media Coverage and the Right to a Fair Trial

In her written statement last November 9 2005, Barbara E. Bergman, the President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, aptly stated in behalf of the NACDL that the fundamental issue of every criminal trial is not to entertain, nor to educate, but to administer justice[1].

The controversy regarding whether media coverage of criminal trials is detrimental to a fair trial or not is hotly debated and difficult to balance. Even high caliber lawyers have not reached a general consensus about the issue. The tension between the pros and cons of the said subject is still being balanced every time process of litigation is on going. Questions arising from this issue involved: How much of the media be allowed? Will it be helpful to let the media cover every trial of a particular case from start to finish?

What about the parties involved? Does decision to permit the media or not be the sole right of the judge, or is it the right of all the parties involved, including the defendant? These are but “some” of the important components that embody the whole subject. The apprehension is that, too much publicity might affect the trial’s fairness. The unrestrained freedom given might be used or manipulated to influence fair and just decisions on the parts of the jury and the judge.

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The Pros of Publicity

Arguments for media coverage inside the courtroom are solid and convincing. As cited by Bergman in her written testimony, it promotes “civic awareness” raises “government accountability,” and enhances “legal professionalism”[2]. Bergman was right when she pointed these three positive results of opening the court to the public via media reporting. A prying press, in this case, has become and is indeed a friend and complimentary to the justice system. It exposes everything. When there is malpractice on the side of the police, the prosecutors, and the judges, the media is supportive and contributory in the exacting of fairness to the opposite side[3].

It is also appeasing to the public, especially when a particular case is controversial – involving celebrities or notorious personalities. The public whose curiosity have made them a part of the trial must be given the chance to participate, or else, mistrust to jurisprudence will take place among people in general, as a result. Media coverage is of great assistance in this area.

It prevents closed door proceedings and subjects people of authority to the scrutiny of the public and thus avoid further corruptions which could otherwise happen when media is banned from the deliberations. Another plus of the coverage of criminal trials is that it promotes respect to the justice system. It alleviates the mystery of secrecy in closed insulated proceedings. When there is no care on the part of those involved in executing justice inside hearings and open trial is rather encouraged, public trust heightens, and thus deference to whatever outcomes – may it be comporting to the general sentiment of the public or not.

Because there is also that “damning stigma” to the so-called pretrial publicity (an irony inherent to media coverage), open trial dispels this. The consequent result that oftentimes reverses the guilty verdict of the public restores the already smeared reputation of the criminal defendant. When charges are dismissed, and the premature guilty judgment is eventually proven wrong, the supposed criminal is vindicated before the watching community.

Last point in favor of media involvement, is the benefit that the government, the people, and jurisprudence itself, obtain in this process. Insights to the already wisely crafted laws are contemplated and possible or potential modification of existing laws is considered. As Barbara E. Bergman has stated in her testimony, “Court TV must be credited for its considerable contributions in all of these areas”[4].

The Cons of Media Coverage

The arguments against media involvement in judicial processes are equally convincing. There are also disadvantages to unrestrained media meddling. One primary concern is its negative effects to the parties involved in a particular litigation. The conspicuous presence of cameras inside the courtroom will affect the behaviors of the “main players” of a specific case.

It will thus weaken the procedure or the “fair administration of justice”[5]. Because lawyers, defendants, jurors, and judges, and witnesses are aware that they are being watched, in this kind of scenario, their tendency is to act unnaturally; in other words, they may act hypocritically, and this will be to the detriment of fair judicial process. In the O.J. Simpson case, there were instances when crucial witnesses withheld their testimonies because of fear that they are being watched by the public[6].

If the jurors had been made aware beforehand that the case they were handling would be televised and publicized, the overall verdict would definitely be affected. Concern for the public’s opinion of whatever the eventual decisions they will ever come up regarding the future of the defendant, will or may get into the deliberations process.

Conclusion

The important thing in the whole scenario of judicial procedures everywhere is striking a balance between the pros and the cons of media involvement. First, of course is the fairness that begins in whose authority it is to say “yes” or “no” to the media. As the NACDL has forged and is now binding in the courts of America, all parties involved in the case – Judge, Prosecutors, Defendants, etc. – have to be asked. Everyone must be given the freedom to exercise his/her right. Is it true that, because the eyes of the general public are watching a particular case, it thus precludes a fair trial?

Does presence of cameras in the court demean and disrupt the proceedings? Are the participants in the hearing process – judges, attorneys, jurors, and witnesses – get affected negatively, and therefore adjust their behavior because they are conscious that they are being watched? No one knows for sure whether these are true or not. They may be in many cases, and again, maybe not. The important thing is to strike a balance in both sides and apply what is necessary to secure due process of law. Remember, the fundamental issue in every criminal trial is the administration of justice, not entertainment nor to educate.

Works Cited

Bergman, Barbara. 2005. Cameras in the Courtroom. National Association of Defense Criminal Lawyers accessed on April 28, 2007 in. http://judiciary.senate.gov/testimony.cfm?id=1672&wit_id=4801.

Goldfarb, Ronald. The Trial of the Century Accessed on April 28, 2007

I Reiner, “Cameras Keep Justice System in Focus,” The National Law Journal, October 23, 1995, p. A23. in Goldfarb, Ronald. The Trial of the Century Accessed on April 28, 2007

Cameras in the Courtroom. 2005 National Association of Defense Criminal Lawyers in  http://judiciary.senate.gov/testimony.cfm?id=1672&wit_id=4801.

Ibid.
Goldfarb, Ronald. The Trial of the Century. Accessed in http://www.cosmos-club.org/web/journals/1998/goldfarb.html
http://judiciary.senate.gov/testimony.cfm?id=1672&wit_id=4801.
Ibid.
I Reiner, “Cameras Keep Justice System in Focus,” The National Law Journal, October 23, 1995, p. A23. in Goldfarb, Ronald. The Trial of the Century Accessed on April 28, 2007 in http://www.cosmos-club.org/web/journals/1998/goldfarb.html

http://www.cosmos-club.org/web/journals/1998/goldfarb.html.

 

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