Pilot program shows potential of cameras in courts

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I would never tell a publisher, editor or reporter what to write, but … 

Indiana newspapers have an unprecedented opportunity to educate their readers on how courts operate. 

The Indiana Supreme Court launched a pilot project this month allowing cameras in five trial courtrooms – one each in Allen, Delaware, Lake, Tippecanoe and Vanderburgh counties. With the trial judge’s permission, the media may send staff to take photos or video of proceedings. 

Beyond those counties, the justices have also allowed the broadcast of court proceedings across the state where courts have been streaming proceedings – a practice many courts instituted due to the pandemic. One still needs to secure the judge’s permission and we’re talking about using the video after-the-fact, but this is still unprecedented in the number of courts involved where videos or screenshots from within a courtroom may be shared with the public. 

This opens up a window into the co-equal third branch of government that many Hoosiers never experience. The courts have always been the mysterious man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz that the citizens were not to notice. 

This opens up a window into the co-equal third branch of government that many Hoosiers never experience. The courts have always been the mysterious man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz that the citizens were not to notice. 

What your readers will learn is that trial courts are not sexy and defendants don’t confess to their crimes on the stands. The work is slow and methodical. A case isn’t decided in a half-hour by a former comedian like Steve Harvey. 

In a time when democratic institutions are under attack, including the media and courts, it’s important that we remind our readers that the United States is a country of laws and disputes should be determined by a jury of one’s peers – not an assault on the United States Capitol. 

As I noted in a 2013 column I wrote, there’s a symbiotic relationship between the media and the courts. As then-Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard said, they both need each other. 

Shepard said the newspapers needed a robust court system to provide the First Amendment protection that journalists rely upon to effectively serve as a watchdog on government activity. Conversely, the courts need a robust newspaper presence to disseminate information on the judicial process and decisions of judges and justices. 

As Shepard pointed out the judicial branch has no army to exert its co-equal power with the legislative and executive branches of government. Judicial power derives from the support of the people. 

The transparency of the court system – open hearings and available documents – allows the public to understand the role of the court as a check on potential abuses of the other branches of government and the dispenser of justice. With few citizens in a position to follow the courts on a regular basis, the media becomes the eyes and ears for the public. 

While newspapers have been forced to cut reporting staffs and examine how to allocate the resources, I hope coverage of the courts isn’t neglected. 

In addition to democracy’s need for court coverage, stories on lawsuits and criminal prosecutions often shine a light on issues that may call for a national dialogue on public policies or reflect the attitude of a nation that is ever-changing. 

In addition to democracy’s need for court coverage, stories on lawsuits and criminal prosecutions often shine a light on issues that may call for a national dialogue on public policies or reflect the attitude of a nation that is ever-changing. 

Plessy v. Ferguson said separate but equal was constitutional in 1896. The change in public attitude was reflected 60 years later when that Supreme Court case was overturned by the Court in Brown v. Board of Education, ushering in the desegregation of the country, 

The divorce proceedings of then-General Electric CEO Jack Welsh shocked Americans and corporate stockholders into examining the extraordinary compensation being received by corporate leaders. 

Most of us remember the day the verdict came in for O.J. Simpson. More recently, our nation was focused on the outcome of the murder trial of Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of killing George Floyd. 

The courts contain a wealth of stories – on how the courts work, policies such as the red-flag law, features on judges or staff – and Indiana newspapers have the opportunity to visually present those stories along with the usual text. The four-month pilot will expire with the end of March. 

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