What Difference Do Cameras Make?

“Is it really the trial of the century if only a few can see it?”

That is the question raised by a Boston Herald story about the James “Whitey” Bulger-trial camera ban. “Massive media contingent not daunted by camera ban”  http://bostonherald.com/news_opinion/local_coverage/2013/06/massive_media_contingent_not_daunted_by_camera_ban

My question is, would the Bulger case be the trial of the century — or a trial of the century, given that a good half-dozen trials held in the 20th Century were called the trial of the century — if cameras were not banned?

In my experience with dozens of trials of significant media interest, including a few that might fall into “the trial of the century” bailiwick, cameras access might affect how news organizations cover a trial, but not necessarily whether they will cover it or the level of public interest in it.

That was my conclusion in one of the most popular stories published in the National Center for State Courts The Court Manager was my 1997 “What A Difference A Lens Makes,” which contrasts media coverage and public interest in two cases that had two trials each; one with cameras and one without. http://www.anatomyofatrial.com/pages/images/Difference1_000.jpghttp://www.anatomyofatrial.com/pages/images/Difference2_000.jpg

The 1995 O.J. Simpson criminal trial, involving the murders of Simpson ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman, had camera coverage. The subsequent wrongful death civil trial didn’t. The 1993 Menendez brothers parricide trial had camera coverage, the 1996 retrial did not.

My belief is bolstered when I name several high-profile trials at presentations I do about high-profile trials and ask the people attending which of those trials had camera coverage. Most get at least one wrong.

My list generally includes:

  • Martha Stewart insider trading
  • Rodney King beating
  • Scott Peterson murder
  • Michael Jackson child molestation
  • Heidi Fleiss pandering
  • Menendez brothers parricide (yes and no)
  • William Kennedy Smith rape
  • Casey Anthony murder

So whether or not the Bulger trial rises (or sinks, depending on one’s point of view) to a “trial of the century” level will depend far more on how the media cover it than on whether their cameras can record or air it to the public.

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