Crime news is prime news
The media sells advertising, and high ratings or readerships mean greater profits. Editors, journalists, and television and radio producers know that there is an appetite for morbid, horrific and macabre news stories. A 2008 study found around 20% of television news stories were about crime. The elevation of certain court cases to daily headline news with live feeds from outside courthouses has led to the phrase ‘trial by media’.
Presenter Paul Holmes pioneered television interviews with crime victims, and victims’ friends and families, in 1989 when he began his half-hour Holmes show. The media also covers celebrities, politicians or sportspeople appearing before the courts – even if the charges are minor.
Media access to criminal trials
It is considered to be in the public interest that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done. For this reason media access to criminal trials is generally free and open, and court proceedings may be reported in full. The courts and Parliament are the only public institutions that have permanent media galleries.
In the dock
Cases such as the 2009 trial of Dunedin murderer Clayton Weatherston have been transformed by television cameras. The defendant’s behaviour in the dock made for compulsive viewing. In 2010 artist Liam Gerrard exhibited a portrait of Weatherston in the National Portrait Gallery. Asked about his choice of subject, he explained that he ‘went for the most hated man in the country’.1
If members of the media want to film, record, photograph or sketch a court in session they must make an application in advance through the court registrar. The judge can approve or decline applications and can remove the media at their discretion. Jurors may not be filmed, photographed or identified. During trials jurors must not be interviewed and no comments made by jurors may be reported.
Cameras in court
From 1995 to 1998 the use of television cameras in courtrooms was trialled. (Prior to this the only courtroom depictions were artists’ sketches.) The opinions on filming of judges, lawyers, court staff, witnesses, jurors and accused were sought. Most favoured it, noting its educative value. In-court filming was introduced in 1998. There are restrictions:
- Media are governed by a voluntary code of conduct.
- There are no live broadcasts.
- Television stories using footage must be at least two minutes long.
- No members of the public or the jury can be filmed.
Filming has only been used for high-profile trials. Most reporting still takes place on the steps outside courts or on nearby footpaths, where there are few restrictions on cameras.
Television crime shows
Crime is one of the staples of television drama. The series Hanlon (1985), based on a Dunedin lawyer who practised around 1900, rated highly and sold well overseas. The opening episode, 'In Defence of Minnie Dean', was movie-length at 94 minutes. In the 2010s prime-time evening viewing featured many drama shows about solving crimes.
In the late 1980s non-fiction or ‘reality’ crime television shows arrived. Crimewatch, a show describing crimes and asking the public for leads, first screened in 1987. It sought to gain more details on unsolved cases by presenting information and reconstructions. Information did help police in some cases. The show also gave advice on personal and property safety. The reality show Police Ten 7, which first screened in 2002, follows police around on their beat.
Sensing murder, a television series in which ‘psychics’ tried to solve cold (unsolved) police cases attracted a lot of criticism from groups such as the New Zealand Skeptics. None of these shows has solved any cases. One sceptic put up a potential prize pool of $400,000 if a psychic could prove their abilities. None took up the challenge.
The Broadcasting Standards Authority
The Broadcasting Standards Authority makes rulings on complaints about the way crime is depicted on television shows and the news. Under the Broadcasting Act 1989 broadcasters must respect the principles of the law and take care when reporting on crimes that details revealed do not encourage copycat crimes. They must also be able to justify broadcasting violence on the news or in dramas.
Graphic domestic-violence and drink-driving commercials have attempted to influence ideas on what is right and wrong. Since the 1980s commercials have pushed messages against crimes such as child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, drink driving and speeding. Research in 2003 showed that for road safety, at least, advertising was effective.