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<nettime> Multimedia Instead Of Law?
Kermit Snelson on Wed, 11 Dec 2002 18:45:25 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Multimedia Instead Of Law?

Multimedia Instead Of Law?
Volker Boehme-Neßler

Telepolis, 10 December 2002
[translated from German by Kermit Snelson]

How electronic media change the law

The cultural predominance of the book and writing is coming to an end.
Digitization, computerization and electronic media are the technologies that
dominate cultural development, no longer the printing of books.  The image
is superseding text as the main cultural medium.

Law and Images:  The Meeting of Two Worlds

So far, law has escaped the culture of images.  Modern law almost entirely
dispenses with them.  Law books consist of words, not pictures.  But law, as
an important component of culture, can hardly escape culture's strong
tendency toward visualization forever.  A "pictorial turn" will eventually
take place in law as well.

This "imageization" of law is already underway.  Courtroom TV is a big hit.
Because Germany generally does not allow actual legal proceedings to be
broadcast, the networks present instead orchestrated, fictitious, but
apparently real trials.   Actors simulate fictitious courtroom proceedings
with the participation of real-life jurists.  The abstract concept of law
thereby becomes increasingly manifest to the public.  Law is made visible.

"Imagized" Law

Images are much more powerful than words and text.  An image says more than
a thousand words.  The power to persuade is what law is all about.  Laws,
legal figures, judgments and a lawyer's pleadings must persuade.  The formal
language of law would clearly be extended by its visualization.  Law's
persuasive ability would increase, most of all when complex or dynamic
issues are concerned.  If communication in the process of law were to be
accomplished with and through images, difficult legal issues could thereby
be represented and tackled more broadly and comprehensively.

Credibility Issues

The public has a paradoxical understanding of images.  On one hand, images
represent credibility and authenticity.  People generally tend to believe
what they can see with their own eyes.  On the other hand, images have a
credibility problem, because images can be falsified.  Digital technology
only exacerbates this problem, because of the new, vast, and hardly
fathomable opportunities it has opened up for the manipulation of images.

Consequently, there's a danger that visual communication could fall under
the absolute and indiscriminate suspicion of manipulation.  In that case,
the visualization of law would render law not only less effective, but even
dangerous.  After all, the law is for the most part viable only to the
extent that it is credible and taken seriously.

Emotional Law

Communication through images is much more emotional than oral or written
forms.  Law will therefore be emotionalized through images.  What will be
the repercussions?

Images and television diminish the distance between the legal system and the
everyday lives of citizens.  The consequences of this are twofold.
Infotainment and information are not, as a rule, mutually exclusive.
Televised images reach segments of the population that would normally have
little interest in, much less understanding of, legal questions and
resolutions.  If television shows such as courtroom dramas or Court-TV can
awaken interest and understanding of the legal system among broad sections
of the public, this might serve to advance the acceptance of law.

Populism in Law

The loss of distance introduced by television, however, hides a fundamental
problem.  Basically, it's that the influence of visual language on law
reduces the distance between the law and the general public.

In an open democracy, that's certainly a step in the right direction.  But
even in that case, this development is not without problems.  A certain
distance is necessary in order to preserve the independence and objectivity
of law and the courts.  This distance between law and the public also has an
beneficial effect:  the law should not be populist.  Populist prejudices and
 emotional outbursts should not directly influence the legal system, and the
purpose of distance is to prevent that.  Behind this idea lies the tradition
of "rational justice."  If that distance is lost, law's ability to resist
populist and demagogic influences will be weakened.

Judge Judy, Bearer of Enlightenment?

Television and images in the juristic realm can be enlightening, in the best
sense of the word.  However, it is by no means certain that televised
justice will actually live up to this potential.  Empirical studies of
courtroom dramas and similar programs have shown in fact that they tend to
have the opposite effect, especially in the USA.  Television promotes a
distorted and false image of the legal system.  Courtroom shows give rise to
false ideas about the law and its possibilities.  "Real" law therefore
becomes less and less accepted, because it doesn't live up to the
impressions gained from television.

Televised images of law can therefore have an enlightening influence and
increase the public's acceptance of law and justice.  But it can also have
the opposite effect, and that trend in fact currently dominates.

The Faces of Law

One element of the logic of mass media and of images is personalization.
Images require faces.  The more strongly law is visualized, the more it is
simultaneously personalized.  But one of the basic features of modern law is
that it proceeds "without respect of person."  The Goddess of Justice is

That will change when the logic of mass media leads to a visualization of
the law.  The persons involved in legal proceedings, together with their
images, will become more and more important.  If a new law gets reported in
the media, in many cases it's not primarily because of the dry substance of
the law itself.  Just as important (not always, but increasingly often) is
the person who originally proposed the law and the person who opposed it.

Through the lens of mass media, legislative deliberations are not the dry,
colorless procedures by which various interests are balanced.  They become
instead colorful, exciting duels between distinguishable opponents.  Another
example is the growing phenomenon of "defendant PR."  In prominent cases,
the defendant appeals to the mass media and thereby tries to mobilize mass
sympathy in order to influence the court's verdict.

Law as Storytelling

Where will this lead?  Typical juristic methods such as deductive and
inductive logic, analogy and syllogism are not at all mediagenic.  Abstract
chains of logical deduction may be represented through images only with

Visualization of the law will tend to make legal argumentation bear an
increasingly strong resemblance to "storytelling."  Dry legal cases will be
a thing of the past.  The public's interest will be engaged using plausible,
colorful, vivid stories set in a correspondingly dramatic production.
Rational, abstract, and possibly even written discussions simply won't do.

Will the Law Become Irrelevant?

The virtually unavoidable "imageization" of law presents great
opportunities, but also distinct risks.  But one conclusion cannot be
avoided:  if law simply excludes itself from the visual trend currently
underway in society, it will become ever more irrelevant.  Conflicts will
simply be no longer be resolved within the dry, dusty, unphotogenic halls of

So why shouldn't it be thinkable in the image society to conduct our
courtroom proceedings on television?  But then the laws of justice will no
longer count, and will give way to the formula of the soap opera.


Prof. Dr. Dr. Volker Boehme-Neßler teaches media and Internet law in Berlin.
His publications include "CyberLaw" and [1] www.internetrecht.com.  Also at
Telepolis is Boehme-Neßler's article [2] "The end of copyright?".

[1] http://www.internetrecht.com
[2] http://www.heise.de/tp/deutsch/special/copy/12137/1.html

Copyright © 1996-2002 All Rights Reserved. Alle Rechte vorbehalten
Verlag Heinz Heise, Hannover

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