Lyons: Cameras won’t turn courtrooms into big tops

Journalists don’t agree on everything – even most things – but they’re fairly consistent when it comes to matters of free speech and public access to information.

It’s been two weeks since some of my colleagues and I attended what was expected to be a forum on whether 22nd Judicial Circuit in McHenry County should consider a pilot program authorized and encouraged by Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride to allow cameras in Illinois courtrooms.

The journalists in the room obviously were in favor of the program. The judges and attorneys who spoke reacted as though we were proposing reality game shows where victims, witnesses, defendants and lawyers were tortured for our amusement.

The proverbial media circus rarely makes its way to McHenry County. I’ve juggled in a few, but they’re usually brief. Chicago or national camera crews pitch their tents for a day or two. Then they’re slogging toward Interstate 90 and wishing they had a news chopper. You find this attitude toward the media often in smaller communities, although it’s conflicted. There’s a chip on our shoulder that no one cares about us – then when the media do show up, we can’t wait for them to leave.

I spent several years inside courtrooms on a daily basis in McHenry County – probably more than many lawyers. The Northwest Herald has had a full-time courthouse reporter in the building for decades. We’re the only media outlet who still does.

During those years, I learned a ton. Just like anything else, there’s a perspective that you gain from observing a process every day that you can’t get from reading a book – or a newspaper.

And I say that not to be pompous, but actually the opposite. A journalist’s primary goal is to inform in the belief that a better informed public leads to a better society. We get frustrated when we can’t explain things as well as we should. Frankly, nothing could explain court proceedings better than seeing them yourself. And just like village board meetings, congressional hearings and the like, there’s simply no harm in recording them.

Because of the volume of court exchanges and hearings I’ve witnessed, I have a deeper understanding and more respect for the judicial process than most. Of course it’s not perfect, but many would be surprised at how well it functions because they never get to see it.

Between the meeting and a Facebook discussion that took place after I’d posted an editorial on cameras in the courtroom over the weekend, it became apparent just how many misconceptions there about how cameras in courtrooms, which have existed in other states for decades, would work.

1. These are pool photographers with still cameras and pool videographers relegated to the back of a room. No one’s going paparazzi on anyone.

2. The Illinois law puts the trial judge completely in charge. If the media does something he or she doesn’t like, the judge kicks them out and can do so at any time.

3. Neither the media nor anyone else is interested in a photo or video of your kid’s traffic ticket. If this stuff isn’t on page 1 of your local newspaper, no one is going to record it or take pictures.

Those are just a few of the misconceptions out there. It’s clear that we have a long way to go to persuade local judges and the public that allowing cameras in court is a good idea, but I hope the dialogue will continue.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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