Televising an execution involves questions about the legality of the media disseminating images of a state-sponsored execution, as well as the effect a broadcast execution may have on society. Thus, one set of concerns relates to principles of open government and the importance of having actual execution footage available as information for democratic consent to a policy that is literally about a life-or-death matter. State and federal “private execution statutes” restrict media access, and courts have ruled unanimously in favor of prison security concerns over First Amendment media access claims. The second set of concerns is about what, if any, effect a video of an actual execution would have on support for the death penalty and the level of violence in society. Proponents of televising or Webcasting an execution include supporters and opponents of the death penalty, united by a belief that authentic images or footage would make a difference to people who can easily access reality-based executions in the media. If a televised execution would have an impact on people, then it also has the potential to deter, brutalize, coarsen, and/or desensitize.
Media Access and First Amendment Issues
Executions in the United States and Europe were historically conducted in public, often with pageantry and spectacle. In the 1800s in the United States, governments started restricting access to executions. Currently, while some important government activities are available through media to the public, real images of police and courts are more available than real images of punishment, especially capital punishment. Media are allowed entrance to executions as official witnesses, but can only provide written and verbal descriptions; sketch artists are allowed entrance, but photographers and television and video cameras are not. Legal challenges to this system started after the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized executions in 1976, although none has been successful.
In a 1977 case, for example, a television station charged that prison policies discriminated against visual media: if news writers with pens are allowed, then television or photojournalists should have equal access with their respective reporting tools. A lower court sided with the media, maintaining the government should not decide what is fit for the public to view. But an appeals court overturned the decision, arguing the First Amendment applies to publication and does not confer additional rights to gather information. The court also concluded that public information was not limited by the unavailability of actual footage, which did not have qualities that distinguished it from a simulation. In a California case, an execution was videotaped for use in a case about the constitutionality of the gas chamber, but a local station was denied the ability to televise it. The tape was destroyed when the gas chamber case was resolved. An inmate who wanted to record his execution as part of a documentary about the pitfalls of a life of crime was denied his request because of a mix of concerns about security and limits on the First Amendment right to gather information.
Timothy McVeigh’s execution for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was a partial exception because it was shown in a theater to a group of survivors who could not all be accommodated in the small execution witness room in the federal prison in Indiana. But the live closed-circuit broadcast did not violate the federal law that prohibits recording an execution because it was not captured and preserved. A lawsuit to take the same video feed going to Oklahoma City and disseminate it on the Internet was supported by McVeigh because he said he favored scrutiny of government actions. However, this suit was rejected by a court, which deferred to the prison warden’s claims that not televising executions upheld the solemnity of executions and would prevent riots because a televised execution would make inmates see executions as “sport” and feel dehumanized.
Impact on Public Opinion and Violence in Society
Apart from whether the First Amendment or principles of open government require media executions are other issues about the impact of a televised execution. One concern is the impact it might have on support for capital punishment. Opponents of the death penalty believe that support for executions is based on symbolic issues, and people’s support would erode if they were confronted with the reality of a premeditated state killing, especially if the method involved an electric chair, the condemned was a female, and there was a mistake and/or outstanding questions about innocence. Supporters of the death penalty believe that executions, especially by lethal injection, are humane and would ease people’s concerns. The killing by the state would be more humane than the killing by the condemned, and programming to contextualize the execution would likely highlight the brutality of original murder so as not to generate sympathy for the condemned.
Another concern is about whether a televised execution would increase violence through brutalization, decrease violence because of deterrence, or simply desensitize people. Research currently cannot establish that the death penalty has a deterrent or brutalizing effect. But arguments posit that there is no effect because executions are hidden, with only a brief narrative describing them. So, televising executions has the potential to make capital punishment more real, thereby amplifying the potential both to deter and brutalize.
Many of the arguments about the effects of a televised execution assume images of a real execution would have an impact on people in a media environment where they are exposed to—and through video games are virtual perpetrators of— dramatized and sensationalized violence. If people do not connect with this reality, then a televised execution is likely to result in complacency about state executions and possible further desensitization to other real violence and suffering. Reports from witnesses to executions note how the procedure is clinical and the steps that reveal the real human drama of executions are hidden from official witnesses.
- Association of Chiefs of Police. 1993. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/181653.pdf (Accessed October 2013).
- Johnson, Robert, Sandra McGunigall-Smith, and Claire Callahan. “Can I Get a Witness? Thoughts on Witnessing Executions.” Prison Journal, v.93/1 (2013).
- Leighton, Paul. “The U.S. Can’t Televise an Execution Because It Will Make Condemned Men Feel Bad About the Death Penalty? Issues Raised by the Suit to Make McVeigh’s Execution Public.” In Death Penalty Today, Robert Bohm, ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2008.
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