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Meeting the risks of cameras in the courtroom

The Supreme Court made a strong theoretical case for this week's decision allowing states to permit TV cameras in the courtroom. But it acknowledged that "dangers lurk" in the practice. Now all concerned -- the authorities, the broadcasters, the public -- will have to exercise the highest sense of responsibility to ensure against the dangers.

What has to be guarded against is not only the potential danger noted by the court -- to the fairness of a trial in a particular case. There is also the threat of trivializing the workings of justice into one more media soap opera or spectacular.The tube already challenges viewers not to be lulled into lack of discrimination as fact, fiction, and commercials flow by in a virtually homogenized stream. The actual trials of actual people must not become just another diversion.

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As the court mentioned, broadcasting equipment has changed since the days when its obtrusiveness almost guaranteed a circus atmosphere. The onus is placed on the taste and judgment of broadcasters to use their media properly. Defendants always have the right to appeal, to demonstrate any unfairness attributable to media coverage. But the court does not see the mere presence of TV (or radio or still photographers) as preventing fairness. Thus the various forms of televised trial coverage in more than half the states can continue, and the way is open for others to follow suit, even when defendants object. The court ruled that the risk of juror prejudice does not justify an absolute ban on coverage by the print media, nor should it justify a ban on the broadcast media.

The result is "an enormous legal advance for broadcasting," in the words of a press- freedom watchdog group. It can also be an advance for the public in the sense of extending the openness of American justice to those who are not physically present. Some representatives of the print media have abused their responsibilities as proxies for the public in the nation's courtrooms. Broadcasters have the challenge not to repeat such mistakes -- and indeed to spur improvement of print coverage -- by rising to their opportunity of enhancing the process of justice through making it more immediately a nd visibly accountable to the people.

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