An evolution of courtroom video coverage

July 16, 2013 01:30

By G. Stuart Smith, Associate Professor, Hofstra University

Viewers glued to their screens watching the George Zimmerman trial—or two years before that, the Casey Anthony trial—may not have noticed, but a quiet evolution was taking place in the courtrooms where the legal dramas played out.  Long at the forefront of allowing one video camera in court, those in charge of the Florida judicial system changed the rules to allow multiple video cameras to witness the proceedings.

Human-operated cameraIn the Zimmerman trial in Seminole County, where the defendant was charged with and acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, sharp-eyed viewers could spot two robotic cameras in use and then the view from those would sometimes have a shot of another camera—this one operated by the traditional human. As a result of the multi-camera coverage, viewers watching both live and in recorded stories were treated to a seamless sequence.  The typical three-shot multi-camera sequence would start with the prosecutor or defense attorney posing a question, then a second camera would cut to a witness answering, then perhaps the third camera would be called on for a cutaway of the defendant reacting—all in real time.  Another scenario might use two cameras for a wide shot of the courtroom as a witness was called to the stand, then a close up of the witness taking the oath.

Robotic camerasUnder the prior coverage rules—allowing only one video camera—getting those sequences could not happen in real time without a series of distracting pans and zooms.  With one camera, to be sure all participants were in the shot, the camera operator might have stayed on one long wide shot.  In stories recorded with one camera, the three-shot sequence could have been cut together using cutaways that may have been taken minutes or hours apart.  As a result, a cutaway of a defendant in a recorded single-camera video story might actually show him or her reacting to something totally different from what the witness was saying.

All in all, the new multi-camera arrangement gives a more realistic view of what takes place in a trial.  It also provides a more aesthetic production for viewers, whether on-air or online.
Long-time Orlando Sentinel TV critic Hal Boedeker, responding to an email question about the use of multiple cameras, wrote:  "One camera would give you only one perspective, and that would be monotonous for viewers. Multiple cameras make for better television."

Florida courts and TV stations began experimenting in the late 1970s with allowing TV and still camera coverage of trials.  After a year’s test, the administrative rules were rewritten to allow one TV camera to cover the courts; it had to be locked down in one place with no distracting movement or lights.  Two video cameras were permitted to cover appellate hearings.  Instead of the media having to petition each time to allow cameras into the court, the rules put the onus on trial participants:  if they did not want a camera in the court, they would have to prove to the judge that it would harm their case.  The media have always been responsible for arranging a pool for distributing the video when more than one organization made a request to cover a proceeding.
Since then, Florida, priding itself on being “The Sunshine State,” has been the gold standard for letting the public vicariously view its court system through video.  The whole world watched the one-camera drama of the disputed 2000 presidential election play out in several Florida trial courts; then in the Florida Supreme Court, the public witnessed the interplay between the opposing lawyers and judges with two camera angles.  The U.S. Supreme Court felt the public pressure to be more open in that high-profile case:  releasing audio, and only audio, of the arguments in Bush v. Gore within hours of the attorneys presenting their cases to the justices.

Now, however, the Florida courts have gone even further in liberalizing cameras in the court.  Ten years ago the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration were rewritten to permit “at least 1 portable television camera, operated by not more than 1 camera person.”  The new rules also give the presiding judge the authority over the “number of permitted cameras.”  
Gone was the premise that multiple cameras would be a distraction.  With less obtrusive robotic cameras, the gates were open to make court coverage more like watching a well-produced dramatic or sports program.

Before the Anthony trial in 2011, local and national media organizations created the Central Florida Media committee (http://cflmedia.org/) to oversee the pool arrangements.  Dave Sirak of WFTV in Orlando has been in charge of the pool arrangements for both the Zimmerman trial and the Anthony trial.  With nationwide interest in both cases, the planning and execution for each pool was extensive.  Sirak wrote in an email that the logistics in the Zimmerman case largely followed those already set up previously for the Anthony trial:  "The judge has approved the number of cameras and their placement in the court. Insession (formally CourtTV) is the pool in the courtroom, a pool of local media are providing the onsite distribution in the parking lot, plug ins in the courthouse the networks are pool [in] the satellite distribution."

Judging from the gavel-to-gavel coverage on cable and online, there appears to be great public interest in these types of cases.  Multiple cameras do not seem to be a distraction to trial participants.  After three decades of allowing cameras in the court, the system is evolving in a way that helps people realistically witness court cases and better understand their judicial system.  In an article celebrating Florida’s 30th anniversary of permanent camera coverage in 2009, John G. White III wrote in The Florida Bar Journal, "The courtroom camera gets the story right, creates a record of the proceeding, and serves as the eyes and ears of the public."  In high profile cases such as the Zimmerman and Anthony trials, multiple cameras—permitting a more realistic perspective of testimony and arguments—have raised the bar on getting the story right.

The Florida Bar Association website explains the history and the arcane rules of using cameras in the Florida courts.  The RTDNA website also has a state-by-state guide of regulations for courtroom camera use for all 50 states.  As the camera technology continues to get less obtrusive, perhaps the RTDNA will have to update that guide as more states—and one day, perhaps, even the federal courts—adopt the Florida model allowing seamless, even more realistic video coverage of the courts.

Supreme Court justices:  are you paying attention?

G. Stuart Smith is an associate professor of journalism at Hofstra University on Long Island.  He worked in Florida television newsrooms for 25 years, which included using a 16mm film camera for courtroom coverage during the 1978 test year.