The New York Times Room for Debate poses yet another interesting issue raised by the dubious fascination with the Zimmerman trial:
Does televising important trials let people better understand the case, and the criminal justice system, or does that attention turn the justice system into a circus?
Think the answer is obvious? Not to the chosen experts. Larry Posner, identified merely as a trial lawyer, offers his two cents:
Watch a televised trial not because it is an excellent tutorial on our justice system, but because it is a tolerable – and even entertaining – method of learning about something important and complex: the right to trial by jury. Studying criminal procedure from a televised trial is painless. Viewers learn about jury selection, and the function of opening statements. They learn that the burden of proof is on the government, and that the proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt. Try force-feeding those concepts to citizens, and most would drop the class. Put it on television, and it is the ultimate reality show.
To his credit, at least he doesn’t argue that it prepares the viewer to hop out of his La-Z-Boy and into the well to cross a witness. While it is more fun than a crim law lecture, that merely puts it into the category of a root canal. The leap from sufficiently interesting to grab the attention of the viewer to the viewer learning anything seems blind. Deaf and dumb as well. Citizens may have watched it, but watching and learning are two entirely different things. You don’t necessarily get to the latter through the former.
It was particularly interesting to see my Above The Law pal David Lat as one of the debaters, something at which he is a master. David too notes that people don’t seem to be thrilled about learning law.
As a result, citizens often adopt a willful blindness regarding law and the legal system. Such ignorance has negative consequences. It reduces compliance with the law. It makes for a less informed electorate.
No question that the law is a pervasive and critical factor in every American’s life, and yet one that shockingly few know anything about. But David, who feels that no image of a female law student in crotchless panties should not be made immediately and publicly available, takes it to the next level.
Fictional representations of the law, even when imperfect, are a step toward correcting this. They function as civic education, getting people interested in the law.
So Ally McBeal helped?
Sometimes these depictions are distorted for entertainment value.
Wait, David. Are you saying all murder cases don’t go from arrest to verdict in an hour?
What about inaccuracies in fictional representations of the law? They are a concern, although less so in the information age, when accurate information is just a few keystrokes away.
Because most people will immediately run to the computer after watching a TV show and fact-check? And if it says so on the internet, it must be true. The internet can’t be wrong, you know (cue French model).
Sensationalism in fictional depictions is an issue as well. But sensationalism is no less present in the coverage of high-profile trials like those of George Zimmerman or Casey Anthony, which is where people will otherwise acquire their knowledge of the legal system.
This could have been an opportune moment for David to decry the sensationalism, if not outright stupidity, of putative news channels. After all, what’s holding the viewers’ attention by pandering to their bias when compared to the billions of brain cells murdered?
But, no. Better the public learns it wrong, and is thereafter absolutely certain they now “know” the law because they saw it on TV with color commentary from relatively attractive angry women (Nancy Grace excepted) than intelligent, accurate and thoughtful color commentary from lawyers who actually do this stuff and know what they’re talking about. John Madden would have been canned from Monday Night Football by half-time.
Only one voice out of five offered a critical view. Nancy Marder, a Chicago-Kent lawprof, opens with a bang:
Televised criminal trials do more harm than good. They hurt defendants’ right to a fair trial and they actually reduce the public’s understanding of our judicial system.
Say what? Spoon-feeding bad information 24/7 isn’t the bedrock of American Exceptionalism? How can that be?
In addition to the fairness issue, it is ironic but true that televising trials in an effort to educate the public actually misinforms the public. Viewers form a judgment about the defendant and come to believe they know what decision the jury should reach.
Marder goes on to argue, properly if inadequately, that watching a trial on TV isn’t the same as being a juror in a trial, and the impression that viewers get that they are in the same position as the very jurors deciding the case is false. While certainly accurate, as the jurors aren’t forced to endure HLN’s insights, this doesn’t go nearly far enough in distinguishing what one learns from watching television from actual knowledge.
Room for debate is a great concept, provided it offers differing views and, frankly, substantive views from knowledgeable people. That they asked no criminal defense lawyer (nor current prosecutor, for that matter) to opine is a reflection of the New York Times myopic grasp of who has a view worthy of promotion.
But aside from the players, not a single debater, save Marder to a small extent, made anything of the obvious reality that television viewers can watch a trial all day and all night, but without knowing what they are seeing, without context, without a foundational knowledge to understand, it’s just entertainment. It’s tap dancing.
Am I sucking all the fun out of the TV program? Well, maybe a bit, but there is no reason why, if they are compelled to air a trial in its entirety, it can’t include neutral and accurate commentary that strives to illuminate rather than titillate. It could serve to educate, at least to a small extent since nobody will ever become a lawyer by watching television, but the more crap that’s served to Americans to keep them from changing the channel, the more damage to our civic virtue. Marder is right, bad information “actually misinforms the public,” and there is no benefit in making people stupider.