Should you televise trials?
When the Depp v. Heard trial hit headlines in June 2022, curious fans were immediately hooked to watching the defamation suit play out on TV. In a highly criticised move, Judge Penny Azcarate allowed cameras into the courtroom, igniting a surge of interest in the case, and creating a storm of hate directed – in large part – towards Amber Heard. As it was live-streamed, the trial quickly divulged into a circus for the public’s amusement, providing hours of content for avid fans to engage with, often in the spirit of championing Depp or demonising Heard. Amidst this media frenzy, the case even reached the satirical TV programme Saturday Night Live as the stimulus for a sketch. Even now, thousands of videos can be found all over social media ridiculing Heard’s testimony of sexual assault and scrutinizing her character, while ‘fan-girling” over Depp’s cool demeanour and the prowess of his legal team. As this case was decided by a jury that ruled in Depp’s favour, one can’t help but wonder if the cameras played a role in its outcome, and question why Judge Azcarate allowed filming in the first place.
When a case is televised, it becomes freely available to the general public in its original form. Sometimes trials are televised due to public interest in high-profile figures, as was the case with the O.J. Simpson murder trial of 1995. Other times it can be due to the case being particularly gruesome or heinous, as with the trials of Ted Bundy, the Menendez Brothers, and Jeffrey Dahmer. One site, courttv.com, boasts itself as the “home of high-profile trial coverage for decades”, having made a name for itself amongst the community of true-crime fanatics.
But why would judges allow cases to be televised? There are various reasons for this; televising court cases massively increases public awareness and understanding of the justice system and judicial process, helping to demystify the courtroom. Furthermore, there is a lack of evidence which would suggest that broadcasting a trial significantly influences the jury and other actors. So, while legal teams may adapt their strategy to consider the cameras, they have every right to do so. Moreover, legal trials are meant to be freely accessible, especially if the case or the accused had a big impact on the general public. In the United States, the public has a right to view courtroom happenings as was ruled by the Supreme Court case Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia in 1980. Ultimately, it is up to the judge to decide whether or not TV cameras are permitted in their courtroom - if they can’t see why not, they should have no qualms in justifying it.
However, televising trials comes with numerous downsides: firstly, the presence of cameras can influence the behaviour of those involved, particularly witnesses. This can hinder the judge from effectively guiding the case and stop the jury from reaching an accurate conclusion. One must also be wary of publicly humiliating the defendants - this continually plagued Amber Heard during her trial as she faced death threats on an unprecedented scale. Furthermore, the glaring presence of cameras might distract jurors and witnesses trying to make a good impression, costing them their focus on the case at hand. Finally, televising cases can unintentionally sensationalise the trials into juicy, salacious stories for entertainment, distracting from the true purpose of a trial – getting to the bottom of a case at hand. This may also violate the privacy of the accuser and accused, making a tough situation even more difficult.
Depp v. Heard is now a documentary available on Netflix. Realistically, the practice of televising cases is not going to die out, and - as social media expands - public interest in high-profile trials will only grow. In some countries, televising cases is strictly prohibited whereas in others it is increasing in prominence. Ultimately, until strong evidence can show that it seriously sways the outcome of a trial, televising cases will only become more and more common.