A number of you have reacted to Kirk Nurmi’s recent opinion piece published in the New York Daily News about how live trial coverage can adversely affect a trial and its participants when it becomes a “reality TV show.” As far as I know, Nurmi’s experience is limited to Jodi Arias’s trial which he relies on to illustrate his point. He claims that justice takes a back seat when a trial takes centerstage in a ratings bonanza. Nurmi ends the piece, however, saying he is not suggesting that cameras be banned from the courtroom.
So, what “reality TV show” is he talking about? I suspect his focus was HLN’s prime time coverage of Arias’s first trial in 2013.
I covered trials across the country for 19 years for Court TV (later renamed In Session on truTV) and HLN. I was sent to my first trial shortly after Court TV’s third anniversary in 1994. (Court TV launched on July 1, 1991. I started on June 27, 1994 but I wasn’t sent to a live trial until the fall of 1994.) In the early years of Court TV, a viewer heard few opinions on air. In the studio and in the field, we were doing straight reporting to educate viewers about the justice system, offering both sides of the story but not taking sides. That, of course, changed over time as it became more and more acceptable (why that started, I’m not exactly sure) for anchors to have opinions. More than two decades later, we’re accustomed to hearing Nancy Grace’s opinions or, for that matter, Rachel Maddow’s and Bill O’Reilly’s, to name just a few others.
During the time I covered trials, I continued to report as I always did. It wasn’t my role to opine nor did I feel comfortable doing so. Even now, as I’m free to offer my take, I often hesitate, perhaps because I’m so accustomed to being straight down the middle.
Over the years, I learned that it’s the story itself, not the TV coverage, that grabs the public’s attention. I covered many high profile trials where the public’s interest wasn’t dependent on whether there was a camera inside. One was Scott Peterson’s 2004 death penalty trial in Redwood City, CA. The absence of a camera in the courtroom didn’t dampen the public’s interest. Another was Michael Skakel’s murder trial in 2002. There was no camera inside but more than 100 journalists and photographers patiently waited outside the Connecticut courthouse every day for the attorneys to step up to the podium.
That said, when there is public interest and there’s a camera inside, the TV coverage clearly heightens the interest. The most responsible way to offer TV coverage from the courtroom is to simply show the proceedings, explain the process, and let viewers reach their own conclusions. Don’t tell them what to think. The most responsible way, however, may not return the highest ratings. In my opinion, it’s more important to be responsible when covering the justice system than striving for the highest advertising dollars and viewership. It’s not a winning argument which is why, in part, I suspect that Court TV no longer exists.
What Nurmi is really talking about is the presence of social media, coupled with opinionated prime time coverage—coverage that, at Arias’s 2013 trial, clearly took strong positions as many prime time cable “news” shows do today, and even offered a version of a game show. By the way, Facebook was being developed the same summer I covered Scott Peterson’s trial, a few miles from my Palo Alto hotel. There were no tweets or posts during the Peterson and Skakel trials. But there were plenty by the time Casey Anthony was tried in 2011 and, of course, Arias in 2013.
Social media are here to stay. While a judge may control a camera in the courtroom, she is powerless against the public who has every right to post on social platforms from outside the courtroom. It is disappointing, however, when posts include negative reviews of a book not even read (point for Nurmi) or cyberbullying keeps a witness off the stand (another point for Nurmi).
Those situations are few and, thankfully, are not caused by the camera.