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Dublin: 18 °C Thursday 31 July, 2014

Column: Is television courtroom broadcasting a good idea?

On a recent visit to Ireland, well-known television personality Judy Judy called for television courtroom broadcasting in Ireland. Solicitor Paul Lambert discusses what this proposal might mean.

Paul Lambert

THE RECENT VISIT of Judge Judy to Ireland raised the issue of television courtroom broadcasting and some related issues. During her engagements, she promoted the idea of such broadcasting here.

A recent (non-scientific) poll in TheJournal.ie found that 46 per cent of voters (1,455) felt that cameras should not be allowed in Irish courtrooms, while 37 per cent voted yes and 16 per cent did not know. This author’s research has also found that a majority of responding Irish judges are not in favour of courtroom broadcasting.

What Judge Judy does not say, however, is that there is clear and distinct lack of research in relation to the effects inside of the courtroom – such as distraction – and the effects outside of the courtroom. Effects can be positive and negative. In the instance of courtroom broadcasting research, there is an insufficient body of research to back up the various arguments. This includes the argument that one would expect Judge Judy to make, such as television courtroom broadcasting being educational or informative.

The “educational” effects of television courtroom broadcasting

Indeed, advocates of television courtroom broadcasting can be discerned to be using the “educational” argument less and less, and the distinctly more woolly “informative” argument more and more. One could wonder why? Possibly, it may be because no one has been able to back up the educational effects argument with valid research.

A further point missing in the majority of the discussion is that there is no one single form of television courtroom broadcasting; there are many forms. There can also be different effects for different forms of television courtroom broadcasting. Form A may be more or less educational, for example, than Form B. Most commentators, including Judge Judy, refrain from discussing the many important nuances involved in the different types and different effects of television courtroom broadcasting. This is unfortunate, as it leaves consumers, interested parties, and judges in a less than fully informed position.

One of the examinations of the actual forms involved the entertainment of “reality” form of courtroom television broadcasting is the show Judge Judy.

Court trials and arbitration hearings

The Judge Judy show presents genuine small-claims disputes, Judge Judith Sheindlin (a retired Manhattan Family Court Judge) acts as an arbitrator, not a judge, and the proceedings are therefore meant to be arbitration hearings rather than court trials. Steven Kohn in ‘I’m Not a Judge But I Play One on TV: American Reality Based Courtroom Television’ (2004) found that even though Judge Judy cases were not real, many participants mistakenly believed that they were.

Kohn contrasts this reality TV cases with “real” cases and real courts; and the combatative and more “creative nature of justice that characterised Judy’s style” of reality TV cases. She adopts a style and “extra-legal approach that evoke the daytime TV talk show approach to family problems.” He asks “to what extent do viewers regard what they are witnessing to be real, and to what extent might this shape viewers’ understanding of their own relationship to the law and the legal system?” Elsewhere he refers to Judy’s “creative editing” and other production effects.

Complaints about Judge Judy have reportedlu been made to the California Commission on Judicial Performance. Kohn writes that “any litigants who have appeared on judge Judy really believed that they were taking part in real courtroom proceedings. However, many might be shocked to learn that reality-based courtroom TV tribunals are not real courtroom proceedings at all and that government commissions cannot help them, nor can litigants appeal the decision of TV judges.”

Judgement as a source of spectacle

Kohm’s research found that upon examination, Judge Judy “contribute[s] to a reconceptualisation of judgement as a source of spectacle and entertainment … increasing use of judgement as a form of entertainment.” Indeed, one of the comparators of the differing forms of television courtroom broadcasting involved comparing when and where the footage may be made available. Daytime viewers will generally be more familiar with Judge Judy.

Interestingly, an officially commissioned New Zealand study found that most judges were distracted by the television cameras. It also found that 58 per cent of the public would be less willing to testify as witnesses if there was television courtroom broadcasting. Sixty-seven per cent of the public felt that the broadcasting experiment was not educational.

The issue of education was also referred to in an official New York experiment (1997), yet no educational effects were shown to accrue. Researcher William Petkanas found that “confidence” did not increase as a result of television courtroom broadcasting (Cameras on Trial: An Assessment of the Educational Affect of News Cameras in Trial Courts). Steven Kohm, referred to above, found that television courtroom broadcasting was used for entertainment programming. Similarly so in the research of C Danielle Vinson and John S Ertter (Entertainment or Education, How Do Media Cover the Courts?). Theresa Keller (in Virginian research) found that television courtroom broadcasting did not increase the number of legal and court stories broadcast.

The representation of defendants

Roberta Enter found that the television courtroom broadcasting she examined was biased and presented the defendant unfairly; entertainment and excitement instead were emphasised (The Image of the Judiciary: A Semiotic Analyse of Broadcast Trials to Ascertain its Definition of the Court System).

So while Judge Judy and her headline promotion of television courtroom broadcasting is interesting, it conveniently ignores the nuances and the lack of research of different forms, and the arguments for and against one form over another form. It also ignores that her “courtroom” is not real. It is meant to entertain.

Paul Lambert, solicitor and author of just published Data Protection Law in Ireland: Sources and Issues (Clarus Press) and Television Courtroom Broadcasting: Distraction Effects and Eye Tracking (Intellect UK).

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