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Television is No Place for Justice

Video version of this blog post.

Cops and lawyers fill the airwaves. CSI. Law and Order. Perry Mason. NYPD Blue. These programs have been a staple of American media culture for as long as we’ve had television. Before that there were police radio dramas, and now there are murder podcasts. We love stories about crime.

But the actual, real-world machinery of the legal system does not make for good TV. Attorneys spend most of their time doing research. Detectives write reports and deal with paperwork. Most cases are resolved long before they ever get to court [1] . This isn’t dramatic; it’s tedious. And if you’re the plaintiff or the defendant, most of what you do is wait. And wait. And wait.

In legal matters, boring is a good thing. We want justice to be balanced, fair, and cautious. We want the professionals to follow the rules precisely and without prejudice. And if a judge and jury must make a decision, it should be sober and methodical.

But when courtrooms go on television lawyers and witnesses inevitably become performers. They know that millions of viewers will hear their words and see their faces. They are no longer working to convince twelve jurors, but to win over the public. TV trials are always a circus. Those of us watching at home cannot possibly make a truly informed decision, but that’s what the coverage is guiding us to do.

As I write these words, a murder trial is blanketing our screens. Countless Americans have already decided if the accused is guilty or innocent, even though none of us are on the jury. Whatever the verdict, there will be outrage and vindication. There will be protests and celebration. And there will be condemnation again and again until the media frenzy returns for the the next trial of the century.

Certainly, lawmakers and judges could ban cameras from courtrooms. Indeed, the Supreme Court has resisted any kind of broadcast, only permitting live audio streaming due to the pandemic [2]. But the best answer may not be one of legal restraint, but of self-restraint. Instead of obsessing over a developing trial which we cannot possibly influence, we could choose to do something else. We can turn off our screens and talk to each other.

This is not a football game, where amateur commentary is fun and mostly harmless. Where the losing team still gets paid. This is justice. This is real people whose lives and freedoms are at stake. What is right and wrong is unlikely to be discerned if they are playing for the cameras. The legal process, imperfect as it is, must be humbly followed.

The simplest way we can help is not to watch.

[1] Usually claimed to be upwards of 90% of cases or even 97% of cases, but probably somewhere lower although it depends on the location.


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