As a country, we have come to rely on cameras in the courtroom to put us there, to see a defendant’s demeanor, to see the evidence and the reaction of jurors. Those of us who remember the spectacle of the O.J. Simpson trial have a vivid memory of the glove, the judge, and we tuned in daily like it was a soap opera—which is exactly what it turned into.
But the federal courts have never allowed cameras in the courtroom. I understand the reasoning. It does preserve the courtroom from turning into a spectacle. The recent trials of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and James “Whitey” Bulger have highlighted an interesting dichotomy of the old and the new in how we learn about what is happening in the courtroom.
On the one hand, there are the long-form reports that run in the morning papers or evening news—just as they did during the Simpson trial more than 20 years ago. In the Tsarnaev trial, I looked forward to Kevin Cullen’s column in The Boston Globe and David Boeri’s reporting on WBUR. They gave us the commentary that we couldn’t get anywhere else. More than once, Cullen had me in tears—with the description of the testimony of Bill Richard as one example.
And then there was the new. Together, Boeri and Cullen created their “Finish Line” podcasts (produced by WBUR), which gave us a unique opportunity to listen in on a conversation between the two veteran reporters about the trial and added context to what the average person couldn’t see.
Twitter became our window on the trial as it unfolded. We followed Kelly Tuthill of WCVB, or Carl Stevens from WBZ Radio and many other reporters as they summarized the proceedings in a running set of 140 character tweets. That way we didn’t have to wait for the evening news or the next day’s paper to tell us what had happened. The tweets put us at the trial as it was happening.
Finally, I need to give a shout-out to the courtroom artists – like Jane Flavell Collins, who I worked with many, many years ago when I was at Channel 5 – and she is still at it. It was the artists’ drawings that gave us our only visual picture of what Tsarnaev looked like—his goatee, his stone face. The sketches might not be as compelling as a photograph or a video clip, but it was as close as we could get to being there.
All and all, I think there is something to be said for keeping the cameras out of the federal courtroom. It’s a trade-off for sure – of maintaining the dignity of the trial with the desire of the public to want to be a witness to an historic case. But ultimately, dignity should prevail—especially when digital communication tools can help us fill the gaps.