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Why a Free Press? : Photos help public appreciate courts

Abuses by the press during turn-of-the-century newspaper wars in those days created a backlash that continues to this day.

Abuses by the press during turn-of-the-century newspaper wars in those days created a backlash that continues to this day.

Saying a picture is worth a thousand words is cliché. But clichés become clichés because they work, like this one.

It took Harper’s Weekly, the most prominent news publication of the Civil War era, about 6,000 words and a half dozen woodcut illustrations to tell the story of Antietam a month after the battle happened Sept. 17, 1862.

A few days after the battle, photographer Matthew Brady told a much more vivid and gruesome story when he put about a dozen photos of the battle up in his New York studio.

One showed dead soldiers, Union and Confederate, rotting in the sun along the “sunken road” where some of the fiercest fighting took place.

“The Dead of Antietam” were the first photographs of war, and dead bodies, offered for public view.

Harper’s described the dead; Brady showed them. That made him history’s first photojournalist.

News photography, still and moving, has been a powerful way to tell a story ever since. For the rest of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, journalists and news photographers went about their business mostly unfettered by government.

But abuses by the press during the newspaper wars in those days created a backlash that continues to this day.

Reporters and photographers used to traipse through crime scenes with cops, talking to whomever they wanted and taking pictures of whatever they wanted.

Today, the press is “bullpenned” far away, restricted in whom reporters can talk to and what photographers can shoot or videotape.

Courtrooms used to pop with the sound of flash powder and bulbs as newsmen snapped away during high-profile trials.

Then came the Lindbergh kidnapping, the greatest show trial of all time. We modern folks like to think O.J. Simpson had the trial of the century for public and press interest. But it wasn’t even close to the hysteria of the Bruno Hauptman trial in 1935 for the killing of Charles Lindbergh’s year-old boy.

While courtroom photography played a small role in the hysteria, it was a victim of the ensuing reform movement that led to curbs on press access to the courts.

After the trial, lawyers began arguing about a defendant’s rights to a fair trial and the government’s obligations to provide it under the Sixth Amendment. Much of the arguing claimed that the press interfered with that right.

The press argued for its First Amendment rights to be unfettered by government. For the most part, the Sixth Amendment won.

Photography was banned in federal courtrooms and some state courtrooms. In states without bans, it was highly regulated.

With the advent of cable news in the 1980s, the Internet in the 1990s and the subsequent rise of the 24-hour news cycle, many states have liberalized their rules on courtroom photography. The federal ban remains.

In 1993, the Arizona Supreme Court adopted Rule 122, allowing cameras in the courtroom at the “sole discretion of the judge.”

When the rule first was implemented, most judges allowed photography. Lately, though, state judges have been denying requests more frequently and often without explanation, says a Phoenix TV station’s request to amend the rule, filed last year.

The effort to increase public access, awareness and understanding of Arizona’s court system gained substantial momentum when Gov. Janet Napolitano named Ruth McGregor chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court in 2005.

McGregor is championing numerous reforms, including increased press access.

In November, the court agreed to consider amending Rule 122 and opened it to public comment. The requested amendment eliminates the “sole discretion” language and tells judges to require a showing of “substantial harm” to any party in a trial to prevent photography in courtrooms.

The amendment request, by KPNX and its law firm, Steptoe & Johnson, says the change “will improve public access to the courts, foster greater public understanding of the judicial system and enhance public confidence in the legitmacy and integrity of the judicial process.”

Can a photo really do all that?

In Tucson’s most recent high-profile trial, in 2006, Dr. Bradley Schwartz was convicted of the first-degree murder of rival Dr. Brian Stidham. Local reporters wrote thousands of words describing the killing, the trial and its aftermath.

A handful of photos published the day of the verdict by both daily newspapers told more about the human drama of this tragedy than any scribe could, no matter how skilled.

Our reporters described the devastation of murder. Our photos showed it.

A picture was worth a thousand words.


To read the petition requesting amendment to Rule 122 and to comment on it, go online to the Arizona Supreme Court Web site, click on “Court Rules Forum” and follow the instructions. The court will take comments until May 20. A court reform commission will then consider the amendment and the comments in September. It may choose to do nothing, make the changes or assign it to a committee for further study.

To read Rule 122, click here


Read Tucson Citizen Assistant City Editor Mark B. Evans’ blog, “Why a Free Press?”

If you need help accessing records, call 573-4614 or e-mail mevans@tucsoncitizen.com

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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