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VOL. 112 | NO. 204 | Thursday, November 5, 1998

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By STACEY PETSCHAUER An eye in the court State Supreme Court seeks input on how media trial coverage is working in Tennessee By STACEY PETSCHAUER The Daily News The way citizens once stayed informed about the judicial system was to watch the trials themselves, experiencing the process firsthand. But, those days are gone. "People can no longer sit around in the courthouse and watch trials," said Sue Allison, public information officer for the Supreme Court of Tennessee. "They just dont have time to do that anymore, and it used to be something that happened often. Courtrooms would be filled." These days, most peoples schedules barely allow them to hover in front of the television long enough to catch the latest proceedings on the evening news. But, with Rule 30 of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, citizens at least have the option of seeing courtroom action through the media. Rule 30 has governed the use of cameras in Tennessee courtrooms for nearly two years, and the Court now wants feedback on how the rule is working in practice. The rule, which initially went through a one-year trial period and was permanently adopted Jan. 1, 1997, authorizes media coverage, including television coverage, of judicial proceedings. Rule 30 establishes the presumption that cameras are allowed in courtrooms, giving only a presiding judge the authority to restrict their use in certain instances such as to control courtroom proceedings, maintain decorum, guarantee the safety of trial participants or ensure the fair administration of justice. The rule has gone over well so far, Allison said. "If there have been problems, there have not been many brought to our attention," she said. Rule 30 originally was formed to provide the public with access to and information about the operation of the judicial system. "This court is really committed to openness, and this was part of that commitment," Allison said. "We were looking at different means by which we could open the judicial system to the public, and this just seemed like a good possibility." Tennessee has always had a rule that governed courtroom media coverage, but the old rule made it difficult for cameras to find their way inside courthouse doors. "The difficulty has been that too many people had a veto right, so the practical result of our old rule was that somebody always vetoed the parties, the lawyers, the witnesses, jurors everybody had a right to complain, and the result was that you didnt have any coverage at all," said E. Riley Anderson, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Tennessee. The new rule does not include those veto rights, Anderson said. "Its presumptive that you are going to have camera coverage unless the trial judge decides that it will affect the administration of justice," he said. However, Rule 30 also places some prohibitions on media coverage. Cameras cannot show minors participating in trials, unless the minor is being tried for a criminal offense as an adult. Cameras also are not permitted to show jury selection, jurors, closed proceedings or juvenile court proceedings unless the parties involved in the juvenile proceeding have given written consent. Anderson said the Court is looking for feedback about Rule 30 to gain a better understanding of how it is affecting the state judicial system. Officials believe people involved in court proceedings have had time to see how it actually works in the courtroom. "Except for anecdotal information, we havent had any thorough response from people as to how it is working," Anderson said. "We do know that it has had some difficulties in different places, primarily Nashville, where there have been some violations of the rule. I think that is probably expectable." Those difficulties have included incidents of television stations showing minors, Allison said. "But, for the most part, I think the media has really tried to comply with the rules, and the judges have really tried to work with the media to comply with the rules," she said. Criminal Court Judge Chris B. Craft said he feels Rule 30 has been effective locally. "At first, we were scared about having cameras in the courtroom because we felt that TV would take out of context certain things show just certain emotional snippets of a trial and not report the rest," Craft said. "But, by and large, that has not happened." He said his biggest concern with television coverage of courtroom proceedings is pre-trial publicity hurting the courts ability to find impartial jurors. "When we are picking a jury, the jurors will be able to go home and watch TV, and they wont be able to see themselves, but they could listen to coverage about the trial, and it concerns me that that is going on," Craft said. "Once the jury is sequestered and cant watch TV, well have no problem, but we are hoping that television will act responsibly and not talk about the facts of the case until after the jury has been sworn or sequestered." Circuit Court Judge Robert L. "Butch" Childers has not yet had a request for a camera in his courtroom, where he presides over civil trials. But, he said he believes Rule 30 is appropriate under most circumstances. One concern Childers has about courtroom media coverage is the sensationalism that sometimes surrounds it. "Unfortunately, most of the time, the more sensational cases are the only ones covered because, frankly, thats what sells advertising," Childers said. "Its not news when the judicial system works like it is supposed to work. Its only news if it does not work, it seems to me." He said he is concerned the sound bites used in those cases sometimes give a false impression about what is actually happening in the courtrooms on a daily basis. "Generally speaking, the kinds of cases that I have seen covered are the more sensational cases, and they still dont have so-called gavel-to-gavel coverage. "I would very much be in favor of that, where the cameras come in and cover the whole trial, and where the public gets a chance to see the whole thing," Childers said. Anderson said he also has been disappointed by sound bite coverage. "I understand the limitations of that kind of communication and how much time they have, but the issue sometimes is whether or not the sound bite is representative of what went on gavel-to-gavel the whole day," Anderson said. He said the Court has been trying to shift to local access cable television coverage to encourage more thorough coverage. "We have had some responses. For example, in Nashville, the local access cable television station covers the Supreme Court on a regular basis. We would like to see that happen with trial courts," he said. Anderson said he believes that kind of coverage is important in order to educate the public about what is going on inside the states courts. "If something is wrong or goes wrong that the public does not like, they can respond to it. Then we have an avenue of communication and we can do something about the problem," he said.
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