Tennessee judge orders TV station to hold cameras-in-the-courtroom seminar

Wednesday, February 25, 1998

Criminal Court Judge Cheryl Blackburn is urging all Nashville, Tenn., news media to attend a seminar on state Supreme Court rules governing cameras in the courtroom.

At a hearing on Tuesday, an attorney for News Channel 5 Plus pitched to Blackburn the idea of the station hosting a seminar in an attempt to reduce the odds of another news group violating guidelines on photographing witnesses.

Last week the CBS-affiliate broadcast live testimony of a 17-year-old witness during a hearing involving murder suspect Paul Dennis Reid. This was the latest in a series of violations of a two-year-old state law prohibiting the photography of any minor, except when “being tried for a criminal offense as an adult.”

In December, two local television stations—which were not reprimanded—broadcast footage of a 15-year-old boy testifying in a murder trial in General Sessions Court.

The Nashville Banner published a front-page photograph of a 13-year-old murder trial witness in January. In that case, Blackburn ordered the paper to apologize to the girl, and the paper also agreed to conduct internal training sessions on the rules.

In addition to hosting the seminar, Blackburn ordered the cable channel, which admitted that it “technically violated” the guidelines, to apologize to the witness and destroy its video of his testimony.

“I can't criticize an effort to promote an understanding between the court and the media in regards to cameras in the court,” said Richard Hollow, general counsel for the Tennessee Press Association.

“Recurrent training is part of so many disciplines. It's a process of maintaining your certification—even though journalists aren't licensed. But I'm not prepared to accept the idea that the TV station is solely in error, or accept the idea that the TV station is in error at all,” Hollow said.

Hollow ssaid “It's interesting that nobody advised anyone about the age of the witness. At the very least, [this particular violation] is a shared responsibility. The problem is not with the rules, the problem with the implementation of the rules.”

Phil Bell, director of local programming for News Channel 5, said that, from this point on, Blackburn has said attorneys must officially announce minors who testify in her courtroom.

Said Bell: “I'm pleased that Judge Blackburn, as part of her order, said she will modify her operating procedures somewhat, so that counsel on each side [of a case] will let the court know in advance if any of their witnesses are a minor.”

“The major thing to come out of this is that we've come up with a way to train people about the elements of” the state rules on cameras in the courtroom,” Bell said.

According to Bell, all members of the media—print and broadcast—are urged to attend the training seminar. “Participation is voluntary at this point,” Bell added.

Participation should indeed be voluntary, Hollow said. “I don't know that the court has the authority to require media not a party to the case to attend the seminar. But it's not a bad idea to have a seminar clarifying any misunderstanding about the rules. This might make things work more smoothly.”

No date is set for the seminar.